As most of you likely know by now, I have been advocating for the re-establishment of the running back position as a priority in financial terms for the past few years, whenever the topic has come up. It wasn’t so long ago that contracts at the position reached the mark that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was reportedly offered yesterday, which is $14 million per season.
Through his agent, Bell yesterday argued that the negotiation process showed that the team was more interested in paying the position, rather than the player. In other words, his team believes that the Steelers were more focused on fitting their contract offer to fit into a predictive pay-scale for the running back position than they were in basing the offer on what Bell specifically brings to the table.
From Le’Veon Bell’s agent Adisa Bakari: “His intention was to retire as a Steeler. But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.”
More: “It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player.”
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 16, 2018
I can see both sides, and Bell’s argument is an easy one to make. Just look at what wide receiver Sammy Watkins got paid this offseason, to the tune of $16 million per season. While Watkins is more productive in terms of receiving touchdowns (but not in total touchdowns), Bell is at least comparable in terms of what he produces based on receptions and receiving yards. And that is not even giving consideration to the bulk of his work, which is running the ball.
When healthy, Bell is capable of averaging 2000 yards per season, and at least double-digit touchdowns. Watkins has one 1000-yard season and has 25 touchdowns in 52 career games. Bell has 42 touchdowns in 62 games.
I find the argument that Watkins deserves or is entitled to a more valuable contract than Bell one that I simply cannot make. That is, though, in part because I think the Kansas City Chiefs considerably overpaid Watkins, really relying upon optimism about what he will do in the future, even though he has struggled with health issues.
And I do think it’s going too far to accuse the Steelers of focusing on the position rather than the player. The simple fact of the matter is that their contract offer clearly demonstrated a willingness to blow up the current pay-scale for the running back position. That alone should suffice as a counterargument.
Still, I do believe that a running back should in theory be allowed to receive a contract as valuable as that of a wide receiver, especially a running back who is as complete a player as is Bell, who is not limited if the passing game is required to be emphasized.
Were the Steelers at least thinking about the reality of the running back pay-scale? I think so, yes. Is it unfair for them to do so? I think not. When you are setting a new precedent, you do so by contrasting it to the old.
I do think that the expansion of the running back market is inevitable, and on the horizon. Not just Bell, but David Johnson and Todd Gurley will likely have new contracts by this time next year. Barring something unforeseen, they will all be comfortably in the eight-digit range in annual salary.
How close will those numbers get to the average top receiver salary? Not as much as they’re probably looking for. But it’s a start.