Le'Veon Bell says he's happy with his deal. Should he be?
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Le’Veon Bell says he’s happy with his deal. Should he be?

Le’Veon Bell finally got paid a major contract. But was that contract big enough? The running back will play in the NFL again. But will it be for a desirable team in the New York Jets?

Bell told the Associated Press that he’s “happy” with the contract he got and that he “woke up feeling amazing” about how his free agency saga concluded. Here’s more of what Bell said, via the AP:

“The decision I made is the decision I would do all over again,” he said. “I don’t regret anything that happened. Everything has happened for a reason up until this point. Who’s to say if I played last year, if I do go out there and play on a one-year franchise tag and I do get hurt, do I end up in this position today, being with the New York Jets on a beautiful deal?

“Even on the other side of it, if I go out there and play on the franchise tag and I get another 400 carries … and I come out of the season healthy, who’s to say what team is going to take me after another 400 carries? So, like I said, I’ve contemplated everything I’ve done. … I don’t regret one thing. I’m happy where I’m at and the decision I made and I’m glad I’m here.”

Bell took an almost unprecedented approach to contract negotiations. Because he was unhappy with the Pittsburgh Steelers contract offer in July, Bell declined the deal, and elected to hold out for the entire 2018 season. Had he participated in the team’s offseason and regular season last season, he would have earned $14.54 million on the franchise tag, a fully guaranteed, one-year deal. Instead, he didn’t have any earnings. The rationale was that he could make more money on the open market during 2019 free agency, where his earnings could exceed the Steelers’ contract offer and the franchise tag.

The Steelers’ offer was supposedly a five-year deal worth $70 million. I say supposedly, because the Bell breakup was an ugly one, and it would behoove Pittsburgh to sabotage their former running back with misinformation. Whatever the case, we know Bell passed on a Steelers extension and signed a four-year deal worth $52.5 million with a whopping $25 million guaranteed immediately. For running backs, especially, the guaranteed dollars are the most important sum. And the Steelers’ deal included just $10 million guaranteed in the first year according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Over the first two years of the Steelers’ offer, Bell would have made $33 million, per Rapoport — but, again, only $10 million would have been immediately guaranteed. The other guarantees in that deal were reportedly what’s known as rolling guarantees, which means they kick in later in the contract — make them not, in fact, actual guarantees.

So the reality is this: Bell sat out a year and gave up a $14.5 million franchise tag deal with no future guarantees, and also bypassed a contract extension that reportedly only locked in $10 million guaranteed at the beginning and ended up with a new deal that on the spot earned him $25 million. Put that way, it makes a lot more sense. The total sums — Steelers at $70 million, Jets at just $52 — makes for a jarring comparison but total sums are generally a lie in NFL contracts. Teams tend to backload deals, with the salaries for the final years being huge, because that team intends to cut or trade the player before he gets to those costly years (in Bell’s deal the dead cap number drops all the way to $4 million for the third year, meaning the Jets could move on if it doesn’t work out.)

Bell’s hold out wasn’t a cut-and-dried success. But it wasn’t, by any means, a failure either. Imagine that: There’s nuance to the situation. Naturally, that caused an array of takes, most of them falling on either side of the spectrum. Bell’s decision was great — or it was dumb.

If nothing else, Bell’s actions were admirable in that he stood up for his value as a player, which is challenging under the current NFL collective bargaining agreement. If Bell didn’t feel comfortable with the Steelers offer of the franchise tag, he was smart to pursue every avenue and every option in making sure he set himself and his family up for the future.

Without a doubt, playing on the franchise tag would have been a risky decision — and perhaps it would have been the only foolish one Bell could have made. Signing an extension could have been favorable for Bell. But ultimately, he has landed with a new team that seems to value him in a big way (and they’ll need to if they’re going to justify giving a big contract to a running back). He is guaranteed a significant sum, and he played a role as a test tube for a new brand of player negotiation, which could help players in the future as they try to get out from under the grasps of the franchise tag.

If Bell is happy with his current contract, as he says, then it’s not for us to say that he shouldn’t be, largely because we’ll never get a look at what the Steelers actually offered. As far as we know, the deals were, in some ways, surprisingly comparable. Thus, it’s fair for Bell to be pleased with what he’s got where he got it.

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