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Le’Veon Bell’s fight to reinvent the running back position will have to wait

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After failing to come to terms on a long-term contract before the franchise tag deadline, Le’Veon Bell’s crusade to change the nature of running back negotiations is temporarily on hold.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh’s dynamic, multifarious running back, said something interesting earlier this week. On Tuesday, hours before the Steelers officially applied the franchise tag to Bell for the second consecutive season, he told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that he wants a payday commensurate with his “value,” an equitable demand given his steady ascension to pinnacle of the league’s running back hierarchy. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, no player has matched Bell’s 740 offensive touches and 3,800 all-purpose yards. Since the beginning of ever, no player has amassed more all-purpose yards during the course of their first 60 career games. Bell is indisputably the league’s best receiving back, and he’s among its topmost blockers, as well. He is, by virtually any objective measure, a valuable member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What has stalled, is stalling, and invariably will continue to stall contract deliberations between Bell and the Steelers is the fact that both sides can’t seem to come to an agreement on how to quantify Bell’s “value.” Bell—who last season indicated that his new contract should reflect his status as a top-tier running back and a high-level no. 2 receiver—is presumably looking for something in the ballpark of $14 million per year ($14.5 million, per Fowler’s report), whereas the Steelers’ offer would reportedly pay Bell north of $13 million per season. (As an aside, this seems like a lot of hair-splitting over what could amount to a couple hundred thousand dollars per season, so perhaps surmounting the remaining hurdles in these talks is a matter of haggling guaranteed money.) It’s a complex situation for both parties: the Steelers, whose ability to develop receivers is surpassed only by their steadfast refusal to budge at the negotiating table, must safeguard their long-term vitality, and Bell, an unconventional talent with unconventional desires, is in a prime position to reinvent the running back market.

There is a fascinating duality to the NFL’s organizational structure, at least as far as the economics are concerned. On one hand, capping per team spending, awarding draft compensation based on the previous season’s performance, and revenue sharing operate concurrently to promote league-wide parity (this idea is obviously an illusion *arches eyebrows towards Cleveland*, but a primary tenet nonetheless). When it comes to paying the veteran employees, though, the proceedings are decidedly more capitalistic. Kirk Cousins, a pretty good quarterback who boasts a sub-.500 career record and who lost his lone playoff start, will almost certainly sign the most lucrative contract in NFL history later this month, and this really is not that ridiculous. If you’re [X] age, playing [X] position, and have achieved [X] benchmarks, then your worth—your “value”—is [X] dollars. Cousins is worth what the market says he is worth.

However, there is no neat, formulaic blueprint in place for Bell and the Steelers. Current trends seem to indicate that very good running backs—perhaps even the best running backs—are only worth about $8 million per season. Bell rightfully believes he is worth a heckuva lot more than that, and the Steelers, to a point, are wont to agree with him. Pittsburgh’s reported offer last season would’ve paid Bell $42 million over the first three years of the deal and more than $30 million in guarantees, making him the league’s highest paid running back. This is an incontrovertible acknowledgement that the team is willing to look past some of the longstanding conventions that have hamstrung running backs’ earning potential. Alas, the dotted line remains unsigned.

It is important to note that Bell sees these contract talks as something bigger than simply getting the bag: he’s trying to singlehandedly re-write the calculus that governs the running back market.

“The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” Bell told Fowler last year. “We do everything: We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be.”

In fairness, receivers, tight ends, and fullbacks also block, run, and catch the ball, but there is an argument to made that running backs, as a position group, are criminally undervalued. While contract values for quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs, and pass rushers have ballooned in recent years, running back salaries have remained relatively stagnant over the past half-decade or so, which is largely attributable to the proliferation of backfield committees and the implementation of pass-first offenses (including West Coast systems that often use short passes and screens as a proxy for the running game). Bell has the rare distinction of being a legitimate three-down workhorse that doubles as a formidable and omnivorous receiving threat. (One of the most bananas statistics from last season is that Bell played in 85 percent of Pittsburgh’s offense snaps, and achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that Bell was a healthy scratch in a meaningless Week 17 tilt against Cleveland.) There are not many of these players left in the NFL—Todd Gurley, David Johnson, probably Ezekiel Elliott, maybe Leonard Fournette, and we’ll thrown in Melvin Gordon for the sake of argument—but enough to warrant some sort of immediate paradigm shift. If Bell sees himself as the leader of this crusade, then it’s an endeavor he should continue to pursue.

But, it’s one that will have to be put on hold. Bell and the Steelers both seem interested in getting a deal done. Naturally, the discourse a year ago was much of the same, but I’ve gotten the sense that there’s more optimism afoot this time around. If nothing ultimately transpires, this summer’s script will be reminiscent of the one last season: Bell will skip offseason activities, training camp, and the preseason; he will post YouTube clips and rap songs on his social media profile; throngs of fans will hurl insults at Bell without compunction, as if he should be expected to accept some kind of hometown discount. We’ve all seen this movie.

If a contract does get done, then we’ll look forward to another four or five years of dazzling, snaking forays through eight-man boxes and lots of touchdown dances.