It’s extremely rare to see the highest-paid player at his position holding out for a new contract, but this is exactly what has transpired between running back Le’veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers. While playing on fully guaranteed franchise tag worth upwards of $14.5 million may seem lucrative enough, Bell’s camp is rightfully demanding a long-term deal, replete with guarantees, to keep Bell in Pittsburgh for the prime of his career.
The nature of these demands, however, has never been entirely clear: a year ago, Bell frequently floated figures between $15 and $17 million annually while moonlighting as a rapper, likely seeking a deal mimicking that of teammate Antonio Brown’s four-year, $68 million extension. Bell’s camp has also turned down several extensions, most recently one worth $70 million over the next five years with $33 million in guarantees, making it difficult to gauge what Bell is truly looking for. However, following Los Angeles Rams superstar running back Todd Gurley’s recent monstrous extension, a market may have been set for Bell’s impending free agency.
With all eyes glued on Rams DT Aaron Donald and his extension that still has yet to materialize, the Rams quietly engineered a new deal with Gurley worth between $57.5 and $60 million over the next four years — up to $15 million in annual value — and $45 million in guarantees, including $21 million due at signing. Considering that this is coming on the heels of a breakout 2017 campaign during which Gurley put up almost 2,000 yards from scrimmage, the contract is well-deserved and could set the tone for what running backs demand in the future.
The most impactful feature of Gurley’s contract is the guaranteed money, as it could explain why Bell turned down the Steelers’ offer. With injuries as rife as ever and contracts largely incentive-based, there has been a push by top players for increased guarantees to ensure job security.
Back in March, quarterback Kirk Cousins signed a fully-guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings, the largest fully-guaranteed contract in NFL history. Following the signing, other players around the league, including OT Russell Okung and Gurley himself, voiced the opinion that fully guaranteed deals should be more widespread, as they are in baseball and basketball.
Accordingly, while Gurley wasn’t able to score the bounty of guarantees that Cousins did, he was still able to get over 78% of his deal set in stone, which is more than almost every notable running back extension in recent memory. Devonta Freeman’s latest deal with the Falcons, worth $41.25 million over five years, features roughly $22 million in guarantees (~53%). LeSean McCoy’s extension with the Bills — $40 million over five years — included just $18.25 million guaranteed.
Even Chris Johnson’s 2011 contract with the Titans, which at the time was the heftiest running back contract in NFL history, was just 58% guaranteed. So, Gurley’s new deal may have ushered in a new era in which top-flight running backs demand not only similar annual totals (~$15 million), but also swaths of guarantees — probably upwards of 70-75% of the entire payout.
Given that scope, it is easy to understand why Bell turned down his most recent offer. As attractive and secure as $70 million over five years may seem, Bell was never going to be able to accept just $33 million in guaranteed money (a figure that absolutely pales in comparison with what Gurley received). Accounting for just 47% of the deal, such a structure would have effectively made the final three years of the contract strictly incentives for Bell to perform to the Steelers’ standards — standards that may evolve from year to year.
Additionally, while Gurley and Bell may be trying to set the tone for running back deals at the top, running back valuation as a whole is in flux right now. Since 2010, there have been seven running backs taken in the top 10 picks of the draft, and five of these have come in the past four years. Three of these came in the first five picks — including 2018 2nd overall pick Saquon Barkley — the highest-picked running back since Reggie Bush (2006).
While this is certainly a small sample size, it suggests that the NFL is beginning to covet running backs more and more, and to view them as integral cornerstones of an offensive arsenal. Furthermore, with running backs up in value, running back contracts will see a corresponding spike. The fourth year of Barkley’s rookie scale contract is due to be worth almost $10 million, which would be the 3rd-highest cap hit of any running back in the league today.
Overall, Barkley’s deal is due to pay out just over $31 million fully guaranteed over the next four years, for an average yearly value of almost $8 million per year. Frankly, this may make Barkley’s deal even be more favorable than the extensions that were given to players like LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman, as, while all three feature roughly $8 million in average annual value, Barkley’s features significantly more in guarantees. Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott have similarly lucrative rookie scale contracts, meaning that, with three of the ten highest running back cap hits for 2018 belonging to players on the rookie scale, veterans are bound to take notice.
Beyond simply demanding yearly figures upwards of $15 million to dwarf the expensive rookie deals, top-tier running backs are going to demand copious guarantees–or, in the very least, an upgrade on the status quo. Considering that Barkley is making more than $31 million in guaranteed money on his rookie deal, the Steelers’ offer to the two-time All-Pro Bell–$33 million guaranteed over five years–seems laughable in comparison.
On top of that, with rookie running back contracts as high as they are, free agent running back contracts are also bound to balloon. In 2019, Gurley’s fifth year option was due to be $9.63 million. Instead, Gurley signed an extension at close to $15 million a year–roughly a 50% increase. Saquon Barkley’s option, meanwhile, is speculated to be around $13 million, meaning that an extension at a whopping $20 million in annual value is not out of the question.
Assuming Barkley does indeed become the star running back that he is expected to be, that should reset the running back market once again in 4-5 years. That may reveal another reason why Bell turned down his $70 million offer: while $14 million a year seems sufficiently high now, by the time his next contract rolls around, that figure could be dreadful underpay — especially since said offer was rumored to be heavily front loaded, so his final two years would have paid well below the $14 million average.
All in all, Gurley’s new deal is going to have several monumental consequences for future running back contracts. Firstly, it will likely set the market price for top running backs to $15 million a year or higher. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it will influence other running backs with leverage to push for heavily guaranteed contracts. While Le’veon Bell has been unsuccessful in getting this concession from the Steelers thus far, I would not be surprised if whatever his destination ends up being next March turns out to be the team that offers him upwards of 75% of his money guaranteed.
The final consequence is not limited to just running backs, and is also a byproduct of Kirk Cousins’ recent deal. Something common to both contracts is that, while both are heavily guaranteed, a majority of the guarantees are separate from the signing bonus. In Gurley’s case, of the guaranteed $45 million, just $21 million factor in to the signing bonus. In Cousins’ case, the disparity is even greater: of the guaranteed $84 million, the signing bonus is a measly $3 million.
This is important as, were Cousins or Gurley to somehow suddenly deteriorate in ability and greatly under-perform the deal, this allows the contract to be traded in a salary dump. Essentially, because the signing bonus is paid out at signing, there is no way for the signing team to alleviate the cap hit, even if the player is cut or traded; because the money has already been paid, the cap hit cannot be transferred to another team. However, if there are future guarantees on a contract that have not been paid yet, the burden of these guarantees can be transferred to another team if the player is traded, much like in basketball or baseball.
While this is rare, as most of the guarantees on NFL contracts generally come by way of the signing bonus, this has happened before. Notably, this is what allowed the Browns to take on QB Brock Osweiler’s massive contract from the Texans to pick up a 2nd round pick: while the first two years ($37 million) of the contract were fully guaranteed, only $12 million of that money came in the form of a signing bonus, so the Texans were able to get Osweiler’s second guaranteed season off their books.
If this pattern continues, and contracts become richer and richer in guarantees while signing bonuses decline in significance, we could see a new era of NFL contracts, in which deals begin to much more closely mimic those of the NBA. Besides providing much-needed job security and injury assurance for players, this would also make the trade deadline significantly more interesting for fans, as rebuilding teams would begin to routinely acquire draft picks to take on burdensome contracts.
While this future is still very much distant, Gurley and (in particular) Cousins’s most recent contracts are a step in that direction, and could make for exciting times on the horizon.