SportsPulse: While one superstar is leaving the Big Apple another is on their way to joining it. Le’Veon Bell is expected to be a New York Jet on a four-year deal worth $52.5 million.
He will never make up the money.
That’s the conventional-but-flawed take on the big gamble by Le’Veon Bell to skip last season and wait on the free agent offers to flow.
No, NFL teams didn’t exactly bid themselves crazy in an auction for the services of the best player at the position that typically has the shortest shelf life in football.
The multi-dimensional star joins the New York Jets with a four-year contract worth $52.5 million, according to multiple reports. The average salary of $13.125 million ranks second among running backs after the $57.5 million package ($14.375 million average) that the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley struck last summer. And it will surely rank third after Ezekiel Elliott re-ups with the Dallas Cowboys.
Yet, assuming the reports of $35 million in guarantees are accurate, Bell got the security that saves face after he refused to accept the $14.54 million franchise tag salary in 2018 from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One thing you can’t assume: If Bell played last season, he would have been healthy enough to strike for more free agent riches, anyway.
Truth is, we’ll never know if Bell would have led the NFL in total yards again … or blew out an ACL, tore an Achilles or suffered multiple concussions that would have ruined his market value for what might (or might not) be his last NFL contract.
That’s why his gamble was worth it.
Bell undoubtedly didn’t get what he thought he could have on the open market. Per an NFL Network report, the last long-term contract that the Steelers offered had $33 million over in guaranteed money, albeit in a rolling format over the first two years (only $10 million was fully guaranteed). To top that, though, he had to bet on himself in the market place.
And now it’s fair to wonder if Gurley – derailed down the stretch of a Super Bowl run by the knee he tore up in college – will ever be the same again.
Tough business, this NFL. Call Bell selfish for bailing on his teammates – especially if he told some of them that he’d return last season – but he was operating in an environment in which his next play could be his last. The Pittsburgh players who bashed Bell should know that better than any of us. Remember, when teams cut a productive player (like, say, Chiefs edge rusher Justin Houston this week) with years left on his contract, that loyalty runs rather thin. It’s possible that the salary Bell passed on could have been his ceiling if some calamity ruined his career.
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That risk still exists, but at least the guaranteed dollars are more than double what they were on the franchise tag last year.
Besides, Bell, 27, comes back with fresh legs after tallying a career-high 406 touches during his 2017 season with the Steelers. It’s not inconceivable that he will make up for the “lost year” by extending his career…just as it’s possible that he may be doomed by the wear-and-tear of playing running back.
Bell’s absence last season brought to mind the trek of John Riggins, who a generation ago took a year off from a career that was highlighted by a Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Fame induction. After spending his break hunting and fishing in his native Kansas, a rejuvenated Riggins returned to Washington in 1981 with a fat new contract and classic line: “I’m bored, I’m broke and I’m back.”
A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Riggins for a story about his efforts to seek better pension benefits for retired players, he wouldn’t touch Bell’s situation. Yet in recalling his own case, his point about being physically revitalized during his layoff could surely apply to the three-time Pro Bowl selection.
As Riggins pointed out, while most people referred to his break as taking a year off, in reality it was a year and a half without the live contact that wears on a running back’s shelf life. And with six months before the real games begin, there will be plenty of time for Bell to get back up to football speed.
Riggins, a power back, had a different style during another era, so it is hardly an apples-to-apples comparison with Bell. But some things never change about running backs. They take punishment.
It’s also worth nothing that Riggins had his best years after his time away. He was past 30 when he rushed for 24 touchdowns in 1983 and won Super Bowl XVII MVP amid 1,200- and 1,300-yard seasons in back-to-back campaigns.
Bell used to be a bruiser, too, before morphing into a sleek all-purpose threat. In his final year at Michigan State in 2012, he logged 382 carries (with just 32 receptions), which was quite the harbinger for the NFL workload that loomed.
How long will it last? If Bell provides the Jets with 1,000 healthy touches over four years in supporting the plan revolving around the development of young quarterback Sam Darnold, new Jets coach Adam Gase should thank his lucky stars. You just never know. In the risk vs. reward environment of pro football, there are no guarantees – except with the guaranteed dollars in the contract.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.