Le'Veon Bell, Comparable Situations, and Why History Backs Up His Decision to be Cautious

by Eric Galko

Le’Veon Bell, as of this writing, is not with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s opting to not attend practices or team settings, as he has not signed his franchise tag tender, and instead staying home after he and Pittsburgh didn’t come to an agreement earlier in the off-season.

And as lead editor Justis Mosqueda wrote on Thursday, this is probably the right decision, despite what his teammates have said. He only has two options: play on the franchise tag, or refuse to play the entire season until he absolutely has to, which is from week 11 to week 17.

As this Le’Veon Bell saga has begun to fester throughout the NFL and in the major media, we’ve seen arguments on both sides use the idea of “increased workload”, “risk of injury” and “long-term contract security” as to why Bell should or should not continue his holdout. So I set out to prove whether or not these discussion points actually do hold water based on similarly situated running backs in recent NFL history.

Finding Comparable Situations
One of the running backs who had a similar story to Bell, former Jaguars star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, shared this in his enlightening piece at NFL.com 

“Unlike Bell, I wasn't under the franchise tag, but I held out for 38 daysprior to the 2012 NFL season. Having just won a rushing title -- logging an NFL-high 386 total touches in the process -- I felt I had earned a new deal. The Jaguars, who went through organizational changes that offseason, lacked communication with me and my reps about getting a fresh contract done. I didn't want to be a distraction to my teammates, so I reported right before Week 1 (in football shape) without a new deal. I ended up injuring my foot in Week 7 of the 2012 campaign (having totaled 100 touches already), and that Lisfranc injury ultimately ended my career. I wasn't able to get back to playing at a high level in 2013 and, as a result, never got my due.”

In looking for a comparable situations to Le’Veon Bell, I wanted to find running backs considered at the apex of their position a year before their contract season, and compare it to how the team used them in their contract year. The goal was to answer through case studies the three narratives/hypotheses that have stemmed from the Bell industry-wide reaction.

The criteria for each of the following players was as follows:

  • In the 2013-2018 Free Agency Class
  • At least 500 rushing yards in their “year before contract year” season
  • At least 62.5 rushing yards per game (or on track for 1,000 rushing yards in a 16 game season) in their “year before contract year” season

Again, the goal was to find running backs that were at the apex of their position, established successful running backs, and the difference between previous years and contract year team use. Plus, I wanted to see what that meant when it came to the running back’s next contract. 

 In total, 11 running backs fit this criteria. The stats use for comparison are “Total Rushes”, “Touches Per Game”, and “Touch Market Share”, which is how many touches the running back had relative to all available touches for the team that season.

As you can see, each of the 11 case studies show a bit of a different result.  Highlighted cells are the focuses of the discussion for that player as to how team use impacted that player, and why their contract year situation stood out.

The below second table looks at what change occurred from their “year before Contract Year” and “Contract Year” in terms of team use or injury, and what their free agent contract became.

1. “Teams Increase Usage/Touches for Top Running Backs in Contract Year”
This is a point that Bell’s own agent, Adisa Bakari, has strongly hinted at as a reason why Bell may be inclined for an extended period of time. (). Keep in mind that this is Bell’s second straight season under the franchise tag, so his trust in Pittsburgh is clearly at an all-time low. But the theory does make sense: if you had an extremely valuable employee who was very likely to be leaving in a year, wouldn’t you try to use that employee as much as possible before it walks away for nothing?

His agent’s rationale is one founded in recent case studies. In the above 11 players who fit the criteria of a “star running back who eventually entered a contract year”, 10 of 11 either suffered a major injury (more on that below) or saw an increased in rushes and/or market share in their final season (the lone exception is the never-aging Frank Gore, who’s rushes, touches, and market share roughly stayed the same between the two seasons).

One example is Chris Johnson, who tried to get a new contract, was unsuccessful from the Tennessee Titans, and saw his touches per game increased by a full two touches, finishing in the top-5 among touch leaders in 2013.

A more notable and maybe most on point example was Demarco Murray, who finished his 2013 season among the NFL’s elite at running back. After not coming to an agreement, Murray played his contract season. He saw his rushes total jump from 217 to 392, his touches per game go from 19.3 to 28.1, and his overall market share of the offense rise from a standard 34.3% to nearly 50% of the team’s total offense. 

Finally, two more recent examples of running backs who stayed healthy their contract seasons and saw an increase in market share: Lamar Miller, who remained grossly under-appreciated by the Dolphins during his tenure but saw his market share rise almost a full percentage point in what was a dismal season for Miami; and Carlos Hyde, who just this past season proved to be a full workhorse for the 49ers offense, saw his rushes go from 217 to 240 and his market share rise a full five percent before they were more than willing to let him walk (and sign relatively un-used Jerick McKinnon in free agency).

While some of these examples are more profound than others (such as Demarco Murray, which may be Le’Veon’s best comparison example), it’s clear that, generally, NFL teams are more willing to increase a feature running back’s usage when entering a contract year, as it’s extremely likely they will not be resigning that running back. 

2. “Injury Risk During Contract Greatly Impacts Future Contract”
This holds true for all positions in football, but it’s one that is most common to running backs and even non-ACL or perceived “severe” injuries can drastically impact a running back’s future contract.

Of the 11 players in this study, six had a major injury in their contract year that greatly reduced their market value. Over 50%. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising, as running back is by far the highest injury-per-play position in football. But it does further prove that top-tier running backs generally do not nor should not want to enter a “contract year” if at all possible. 

While that’s generally unreasonable from a team perspective, star running back holdouts such as Maurice Jones-Drew, Ryan Mathews and Matt Forte’s in their respective years may have made a difference.

Here, of the six running backs who suffered notable injuries in their contract year, just two reached $4 million per year contract, is the cutoff (since 2013) for the top-16 highest paid non-rookie running back contracts in the NFL: Matt Forte for 3 years and Eddie Lacy for 1. 

Playing running back is the highest injury-per-play position in football, and top running back should do everything in their power to limit playing in a “contract year” when at the apex of their skill set. Because if they’re injured, NFL teams have proven injuries can drastically impact free agent dollars. 

3. “Teams Lowball Their Feature Running Back Free Agents”
First and foremost, it’s worth noting that every running back who fit our criteria (on pace for 1,000 yards in year before contract year since 2013’s free agent class) moved onto another team. Each and every player was not viewed as worth their market value by the team that just rode them to success in prior seasons. 

That should hint at the mentality of running back use. NFL teams have had a “use it up and replace” thought process with top running backs over the last five years, especially those that they do not sign to an extension before their contract year. 

Running backs like Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley and likely David Johnson next season will likely not play in a contract year after their current deals are up. That’s exactly what nearly all of the running backs on this list attempted to do, and including Le’Veon Bell. And if you’re a star running back, and you and your team doesn’t give you an extension before your contract year, 100% of the time (since 2013) you’ll be looking for a new team.

First and formost, its worth noting that if the Steelers offered Le’Veon Bell the exact same contract as Todd Gurley just received, they wouldn’t be in this mess. And assuming Bell hits free agency next season, he’ll likely get that type of contract.

Of the above case studies, the injuries suffered by Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Forte, and the substantial workload of Demarco Murray all should resonate most for the Le’Veon Bell discusson. Each of those running backs were not just 1,000 yard-season type players; they were pillars of their franchise’s success. Each of those three hit their contract year without a new deal from a team, and saw their team either increase their workload or they themselves suffered an injury that greatly affected their value.

Whatever your belief on Le’Veon Bell’s position, the three above narratives have proven true for running backs in Bell’s situation. By playing under the franchise tag, we know that he likely will see an increase in rushes, touches and market share. By playing under the franchise tag, he is, once again, at a high risk of injury for the position that will greatly impact his future contract (most likely his guaranteed money). And by playing under the franchise tag for the second year, Bell will again be lowballed by his current team and likely move elsewhere in free agency.

Where will that next team be? I’m confident that the Texans, Bucs, Browns and Jets will be the front runners for Bell’s services in 2019, and if he were available today, all would gladly offer him Todd Gurley’s current contract.

But for now, Bell remains in Pittsburgh, restricted by the concept of the franchise tag, and looking to make up for the lost value that star running backs like him before suffered by playing in their contract year.