Le'Veon Bell is making the biggest bet of all in 2018

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Le’Veon Bell is making a $33 million gamble on himself, believing that he, and perhaps he alone, can convince the NFL to change its collective, conventional wisdom on the value of running backs, notably ones in their late 20s.

High stakes? Absolutely. It’s the biggest bet going here in the first NFL season with legalized sports wagering extending into states across the country.

Bell v. father time. Bell v. his balky knees. Bell v. an NFL that has, of late, gotten nervous dropping major money on running backs of any age.

The Pittsburgh Steelers offered Bell, 26, a five-year deal with a reported $33 million guaranteed – and incentives pushing it to as high as $70 million. Bell turned it down, believing that All-Pro running backs should command more money.

As such, he chose to take a one-year deal with the Steelers under the NFL’s franchise tag that will pay him about $14.5 million. It’s his second consecutive season under the franchise tag ($12.2 million last season) after playing out his four-year rookie contract.

That means he’ll enter the 2019 season as a 27-year-old free agent seeking the highest bidder from all 32 teams – yes, even a return to Pittsburgh. That’s where the Michigan State product developed into a star over the past five seasons, rushing for 5,336 yards and 81 touchdowns and recording 2,660 more yards and seven touchdowns catching the ball.

Le’Veon Bell has turned down more than $30 million guaranteed under an assumption that he’ll break the bank after the 2018 season. (AP)

No one doubts his impact on the game. He’s also been injured three times, including twice on the same knee, and suspended two times for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

There was a time when every NFL team coveted a versatile (running and receiving), workhorse (a league-high 321 rushing attempts in 2017) back such as Bell. That time is not this time. It’s backfield by committee now, multiple players often sharing the load to keep legs fresh and injuries down. There is also a premium on young backs, players drafted and getting paid relatively low sums on rookie contracts (Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott).

To pay out for a back with miles on the tires who could lose a step at any time has become a rarity in a league that now fully embraces advanced statistics.

Bell thinks the league has it wrong and some talents are worth the money. Trends and thinking can change. He drove a hard bargain. He was willing to push for what he thought he was worth. He didn’t back down. He’s banking his bank on a bidding war breaking out next spring.

More power to him. It’s his life. It’s his career. And it’s not like he’s playing for chump change. He’ll knock out the mortgage.

“My desire always has been to retire a Steeler,” Bell tweeted. “Both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times … 2018 will be my best season to date.”

If so, Bell will get to write his next contract. This is a two-time All-Pro, of course, and if he churns out 1,300 yards rushing and 700 receiving and double-digit trips to the end zone, someone will pay him long-term.

A lot can go wrong, though. Three of the past four seasons have featured injuries, which would dampen the market and prove the analytics crowd right.

Or someone else could emerge, maybe back-up James Conner or fifth-round draft pick Jaylen Samuels out of N.C. State. Never heard of them? Few outside the Midwest had heard of Bell before the Steelers picked him in the second round of the 2013 draft.

That’s how football now views running backs – for the most part interchangeable and thus replaceable. It’s a glory position that has now become under rewarded and under-appreciated. Yes, some are better than others. How much better, though? And for how long?

Le’Veon Bell says he’s got more years left in him and is more unique than the NFL currently thinks. He’s willing to risk a lot of guaranteed millions he’s right and they are wrong.

The 2018 season will determine who is correct, a gamble within the game.

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