If the goal was to obtain the most amount of money in exchange for the least amount of football, then certainly Le’Veon Bell scored big.
When he was released Tuesday by the Jets — the organization declaring it was “in the interest of both parties” — he had received $28,031,250 in exchange for 17 games, 264 carries, 69 receptions, four touchdowns and 1,363 net yards gained.
You may divide any of those football statistics into his exorbitant paycheck and get a staggering quotient. For instance: $20,565.84 per yard. That 2-yard run on the Jets’ second play from scrimmage in Sunday’s ludicrous 30-10 loss to the Cardinals’? That was $41,131.69 right there.
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If the goal was to be a successful professional football player and maximize his earning potential as well as his athletic accomplishments, however, no one should pretend Bell did anything but fail miserably by declining the Steelers’ multiple long-term contract offers and forcing his way into the free agent market.
Former agent and team executive Andrew Brandt, who now serves as executive director of the sports law program at Villanova, attempted to present Bell as some sort of grandmaster of contractual chess in a tweet published subsequent to the player’s release.
“After making $16 million from the Steelers over four years, Le’Veon Bell made $28 million from the Jets in little over a year,” he wrote.
After making $16 million from the Steelers over four years, Le’Veon Bell made $28 million from the Jets in little over a year.
— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) October 14, 2020
Brandt worked for the Packers long enough to understand why Bell’s income over the first four years of his career was relatively paltry. That’s how the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is arranged. Since 2011, draft picks have been slotted into relatively structured deals depending on the timing of their selection. First-round picks get more than second-rounders, high second-rounders get more than low second-rounders.
Bell was chosen by the Steelers with the 48th pick in the 2013 draft. In June of that year, he signed a four-year, $4.12 million deal. He became a spectacular bargain for the team, even while missing a combined 17 of 64 scheduled games and most or all of four of their six playoff games.
Nine months before the last year of that contract commenced, I wrote that the Steelers would be wise to allow their association with Bell to lapse when it expired because he would, as either a franchise player or one signed to an extended contract, morph from bargain to overpriced luxury. Pittsburgh instead tagged him in the interest of working out a long-term deal.
He declined an offer of five years and $60 million in July 2017. And so Bell earned $12,120,000 for the season, in which he gained 1,291 yards and, for the only time in his career, managed to play in every meaningful game. He also produced only three runs of 20 yards or longer and none that went beyond 27.
Bell’s versatility still entranced the Steelers enough for them to franchise him a second time, this time at a price of $14.54 million, for the 2018 season, while offering an even more generous long-term contract of $70 million over five years. This time, after promising teammates he would at least play again at the franchise price, he never showed. He didn’t play at all, didn’t get paid a nickel.
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So let’s be honest about the accounting here, if professional accomplishments are to play no role in this discussion.
Bell did not earn $28,031,250 just from 2019 through the initial 31 percent of the 2020 season. Because he sat out 2018 and earned nothing, one must factor that into the equation. Assuming Bell signs to play the remainder of this year, it most likely will be for a paltry amount. For the moment, though, his annual salary over the past three years comes to $9,343,750.
Had he signed the 2017 Steelers deal, it’s possible he would have banked $57 million since, an average of $14.25 million. Had he accepted the 2018 offer after playing a year on the franchise tag, he’d have been at the same cumulative total, with the prospect of two more high-earning years to follow.
Obviously, he would not have stuck around that long without playing a lot of football. It would have required showing up for every game, an area where star receiver Antonio Brown failed so spectacularly in 2018.
Some will declare not enough of the Steelers’ two offers was guaranteed, but they are not a franchise in the habit of burning chunks of dead salary-cap money — in the way the Jets just did with Bell. When they sign a player in whom they believe, they almost invariably attempt to see the deal toward its completion.
Figuring how much Steelers money Bell left on the table is a calculation with multiple solutions, because it depends on which deal in which year he might have signed. We know for sure that he got a lot of cash from the Jets for not a lot of hits. The blow to his bank account, though, and to what had been a promising career, will linger.