The Le’Veon Bell Effect: How Bell Ruined Paydays For Running Backs


Hope everyone had a good week!
Despite my attempt to stump y’all by picking two different scenes from the same movie on Tuesday, the lucky winner was able to respond correctly within just a few minutes.
Today’s topic is slightly more niche and less relatable than the others, but with football season around the corner I figured I would write about it anyways. Those of you who follow football and own a fantasy team will enjoy it, while the rest of you may care less.
Nevertheless, let’s dive in.

The Running Back Dilemma

For a sport that usually prides itself of being relatively drama-free, there sure is a lot of it at the moment. And like nearly all other things, it revolves around money.
Following last year’s season, three marquee running backs were coming off their franchise tags – Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard –  expecting to cash in on a multi-year payday, in a sport where stability is hard to come by.
Most notably, Barkley has threatened to sit out during the 2023 season to avoid risking injury and then try again with contract negotiations next year.
But let’s back up first, let’s get into the system that led us to this point because five more top-ten running backs are expected to cross the same bridge before 2025.

How NFL Contracts Work

  • The Draft and Rookie Contracts: For drafted players, all rookies contracts are four years. For players drafted in the first round, of which several running backs are, this includes a fifth-year option where the team can choose to keep a player for an additional year.
  • The Franchise Tag:  This is a one-year contracts that only exists in the NFL where a franchise may elect a player, locking them into a non-negotiated salary for the upcoming season. While the franchise tag often involves a lot of money, there is no room for negotiation from the player’s representation.
  • Multi-Year Contracts: Following all of this (potentially 6 years) players can negotiate for a long-term contract with a lot of guaranteed money. There are fewer stipulations; they can essentially do as they please.
In the case of Saquon Barkley, he signed his rookies contract in 2018 and then got franchise tagged last year, meaning this is his first year of true negotiations.
This system bodes really, really poorly for running backs. Running backs play one of the most physically demanding positions in the game, bearing the brunt of the physical workload, resulting in shorter careers than just about every other position in the game.

Put simply, running backs don’t last as long in the NFL and thus have less earning power.
The data is actually surprisingly clear on this. A running back’s performance typically increases until the age of 27, then after the age of 28, there is a statistically significant drop in their production. In addition to this, there is the “Curse of 370” where there is a highly probable chance of injury for any running back who has over 370 carries on the season.
It’s exactly like a car. Once the car is 15 years old or has hit 200,000 miles, it’s probably time to start looking for a new one.
As a result, in this data and larger shifts to more pass-centric offenses, running backs have never had less value in the NFL than they do now. And it’s only going downhill.

While they may be competitors on the field, running backs are banding together in a union-like effort when it comes to fighting for better pay. Players from different positions are supporting them too.

They Thought Le’Veon Bell Would Turn The Tide

Most analysts saw the decrease in contract values as the final nail in the coffin, that is, until Le’Veon Bell held out in 2018 and then scored the biggest contract for a running back in history (four-year, $52.5 million to play for the Jets).
Yep, when facing a similar situation as Saquon Barkley, Le’Veon decided to boycott the 2018 season and try negotiations again in 2019. And it appeared to have worked.
The result?
Le’Veon Bell sucked for the Jets, never made the same impact, and was out of the NFL shortly after. Now he’s trying his hand at rapping.
What people thought was a breakthrough for running backs was actually just adding insult to injury as Bell’s case only reaffirmed what most front offices were beginning to think: “it’s not worth paying the running backs”.

The Le’Veon Bell Effect

In the seasons prior to Bell’s holdout, the percent of carries by each team’s top backs was increasing, but in the years following they decreased sharply. Showing that because of Le’Veon Bell’s blunder, teams were now opting to a “run by committee” approach.

Thanks to this, the running back position has become the most “plug-and-play” position in the sport. It’s why every season you see breakout running backs like Isiah Pacheco. It’s also why it has become harder for a singular running back to demand so much money when it’s been proven that you can simply plug someone else in and get similar results.

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So, What’s The Solution?

The obvious answer is to get them out of the rookie contract-franchise tag purgatory sooner.
The average age of a drafted running back is 21, which means after the rookie contract and the franchise tag (6 years) most of them are 27 and very close to that 28-year-old production cutoff fostering the hesitation in teams to re-sign them.
Several people think that since their careers are arguably shorter, that they should reach free agency (done with their rookie contract) sooner. Then they could leverage that they are still in their prime, and not bumping up against that production plateau.
Others think that they shouldn’t be able to be franchise tagged, which would also contribute to them hitting free agency at a younger age.
My thoughts?
I agree with those two points. I also think there is something to be said for marketing running backs in a different light than they have been in the past. Instead of highlighting their ability to rush, they should also highlight their blocking ability that helps delay the pass rush or ability to escape the pocket and become a receiver.
Them being able to effectively leverage these traits could result in them garnering the salaries similar to those of wide receivers and linemen.
I think we are already beginning to see this talent shift, as backs like Christian McCaffery and young draftees are often spoken of in terms of their catching ability, or ability to protect the quarterback.
Sometimes it is hard to sympathize with someone who’s already made over $50 million dollars, but I was able to long enough to write this. It should be interesting to see who wins this game of chicken, Barkley or the Giants.
Let’s have ourselves a weekend!


from, matt

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