Make no mistake about it: running back Le’Veon Bell is more likely than not going to sign a huge contract next offseason—potentially the biggest contract ever signed by a running back in the history of the game. The question now becomes whether or not it will be the Pittsburgh Steelers who sign him to that contract.
As Dave Bryan wrote yesterday, Bell is viewing his contract situation as a referendum on the running back market, which has by all reasonable accounts been deflated over the course of the past several years. In the very recent past, a running back such as himself would have easily been a first-round pick.
We have already seen the position pick up over the course of the past two years with multiple running backs being taken in the first round, even in the top five, and these young players, such as Ezekiel Elliott, do have Bell in particular to thank for helping to reset the value of the position by showing what they can do.
That is why Bell is going to be the running back who resets the market after the Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles deals went by the wayside. In a way, it is almost fitting that his disproportionate franchise tag value, which he will now play under this year, is a remnant of that lost market that he is in all likelihood going to renew.
And he will not be alone. David Johnson will follow behind him. Elliott will come eventually as well, of course, but in between could be Todd Gurley, depending on how his next two seasons go. The Rams did try to address the offensive line after he had a down sophomore season.
Teams moved away from the all-purpose back for a bit—some even believed that the position was dead—but Bell showed that it was alive and well, and others are following in his footsteps. But he is rightfully going to be the first to be paid in that new market that he largely created on his own.
The running back position may never again be peer to the top wide receivers, even though they touch the ball far more often, but the top young running backs of today are determined to get their recognition, and the way things are going, there is no reason to believe that teams will not be forced to acquiesce to their pricing demands.
This is not an ideal development for the Steelers, of course, who area either going to have to pay top-dollar-plus to keep him next year, or simply lose him, but I do think that it is the right step for the position as a whole, globally speaking.
It is especially pertinent for the running back position, which has such a notoriously short shelf life, to see the extremely lucrative second contract, because for most, it will be their only opportunity. With his injury history, one could easily wonder if Bell will be included in that category.