When evaluating the value of a contract paid to a player who plays the short-shelf-life position of NFL tailback, the most important factor continues to be fully guaranteed money.
Multiple reports emerging today peg the full guarantee at only $25 million, with total cash flow through two years of $26 million.
The cash flow through the first two years trails the $33 million that reportedly would have been paid to Bell under the offer from the Steelers that he rejected last year. That’s prompting many to say the Steelers gave Bell a “better offer.” But here’s the thing to remember: That offer carried only $20 million in fully-guaranteed payments.
With $14.54 million fully guaranteed under his franchise tender in 2018, would it have made sense to sign a long-term deal that consisted of only $5.46 million more in fully-guaranteed pay? Bell decided that it wouldn’t have.
The bigger, and thornier, question is whether it made sense to completely forego the $14.54 million for the fully-guaranteed payment he later received as an unrestricted free agent. That’s a much hotter button, with plenty of people insisting that he should have taken the $14.54 million and rolled the dice on making big money this year and others arguing that it made far more sense to preserve and protect the much larger payday by giving up a great-but-not-spectacular salary for what could have been a full season of rental-car type abuse by a team that knew Bell wasn’t coming back.
Clouding the issue of whether Bell should have given up $14.54 million last year to get $25 million this year is the fact that, overall, the contract he eventually signed isn’t nearly as good as it could have or should have been. For Bell to hit the open market and to fail to become the highest-paid running back in the NFL is, without question, a major disappointment. Whether it happened because Bell sat out all of last year or because only one team was seriously interested in Bell or because Bell’s agent misread the market or overplayed the hand or because teams were not-so-subtly retaliating against Bell for bucking the system or because the Todd Gurley knee situation has caused teams to err on the side of relying on younger, cheaper, and healthier options, Bell’s foray into free agency ended up being a bust.
In unrestricted free agency, good players get great contracts. Great players should get spectacular deals. The failure of Bell, a clearly great player, to get a spectacular deal represents a colossal failure.
But this doesn’t mean Bell made the wrong decision by avoiding $14.54 million and the physical pounding that may have gone along with it. He’s still getting $25 million no matter what happens moving forward. But he has no guarantees beyond the $26 million he’ll make over the first two years, including no injury guarantees into 2021 or 2020. He also has essentially promised not to hold out for more by tying $3 million in each of the final two years of the deal to reporting to training camp on time.
Again, he should have done better. But the presence of $25 million in full guarantees still makes it possible to argue persuasively that it made sense both to pass on $20 million in full guarantees on a long-term deal and to refuse to take $14.54 million for a final season with the Steelers that could have resulted in Bell being beaten to a pulp.