A stated goal of Le'Veon Bell during contract negotiations with the Pittsburgh Steelers the past two seasons has been to reset the running back market for the next generation of dual-threat tailbacks.
One of those young backs, Todd Gurley, told NFL Network's Taylor Bisciotti at the Gatorade Athlete of The Year awards on Tuesday that he appreciates Bell's efforts to move the market forward and shakes his head that Bell can't find long-term security.
"As a player I definitely feel where he's coming from," Gurley said. "I don't know exactly what he wants. But if he did what he did I'm pretty sure in his mind he did the right thing. I definitely stand behind him and definitely support him. I wanted him to get that long-term deal but unfortunately it didn't work out. He's playing on the tag for the second time, which is not bad at all, but you know you just want that security. It's definitely a sad situation for a guy to be a top-three back since he's came into the league and put in the work and can't even get the money that he deserves. Definitely a sad situation."
While other positions have seen their market share skyrocket -- noted by receiver (and Gurley teammate) Brandin Cooks getting $16.2 million annually on Tuesday -- running backs have been left to scrap for change. Below Bell's $14.54 million franchise tag, Devonta Freeman is the next-highest-paid running back at an $8.25 million per-year average. Only four running backs are on long-term contracts that pay out more than $7 million per season (that includes No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley). Compare that with 28 receivers and 11 tight ends blasting past the same threshold.
Somewhere along the line, NFL teams collectively decided running backs are a replaceable commodity and that they would rather funnel their money to other positions. Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap points out that Adrian Peterson's contract extension from 2011, which averaged $14.2 million per season, would be worth around $21 million today. Only a handful of running backs are making even a third of that contract value seven years later.
With Bell poised to hit the open market next season and the likes of Gurley (2020), David Johnson (2019) and Ezekiel Elliott (2021) up for contracts in the next few years, we'll see if any team will change gears and be willing to pony up the dough for playmakers who do more than run the ball between the tackles.