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As Pittsburgh Steelers unable to sign RB Le’Veon Bell to long-term extension, Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley contract extension looms

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The Steelers look destined for a breakup with their star RB. What for the Rams and perhaps the best dual-threat running back in the NFL?

Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley carries the ball against the New Orleans Saints in Week 12, Nov. 26, 2017.
Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley carries the ball against the New Orleans Saints in Week 12, Nov. 26, 2017.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player.

That was Adisa Bakari, the agent for Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell, reacting to yesterday’s proceedings that saw the deadline pass for a contract extension meaning Bell, along with Los Angeles Rams S Lamarcus Joyner, would have to play out the 2018 season on the franchise tag.

On top of that opinion which is very, very central to not just Bell’s future but to something at the heart of the larger NFL personnel structure, Bakari added that “this now likely will be Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.”

We’re all witnessing the Steelers serve as the lead actor to redress the market for the entire NFL for running backs in the modern era using perhaps its best running back of the last five years.

Before we go any further though, we should address two very important and perhaps conflicting data points.

For one, the Steelers did, reportedly, make a massive offer to Bell. They were willing to put $70m over five years that included $30m over the first two years with $33m guaranteed on the table. That’s a deal that offers $14m average per year, EXCESSIVELY higher than the second-highest contract from the open market in terms of APY: Atlanta Falcons RB Devonta Freeman‘s deal of $8.25m per year over five years. And given that Bell is already 26-years old, it’s a pretty generous offer compared to the market.

Perhaps then, secondly, it looks even more generous given the news this week that former Dallas Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray is retiring having celebrated his 30th birthday in February. As a reminder, Murray gained 1,287 rushing yards in 2016 in a Pro Bowl season for the Tennessee Titans. And he’s retiring.

The running position is one that’s very, very, very hard to figure out when it comes to remuneration right now. And that brings us to the Rams and RB Todd Gurley.

The Rams exercised the fifth-year option on Gurley in April keeping him under contract through 2019. They won’t have to figure things out next offseason. But what they will have to figure out was affected in a major way this week on both sides.

While the Rams are trying to figure out how to reset the non-QB market with DL Aaron Donald while his camp waits to ensure he receives a bigger contract than Oakland Raiders EDGE Khalil Mack, Gurley’s reps are certainly looking at Bell and the upcoming expiration of Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson’s deal after this season and thinking through how to redo JTG’s next deal. And for how long. The expiration of the collective bargaining agreement after the 2020 season looms large even while players like WR Brandin Cooks ink deals beyond that threshold.

Gurley himself isn’t ignorant of the landscape. Back in early July when he was accosted by TMZ paparazzi, he suggested that NFL contracts should be guaranteed and that a lockout might be required to make that happen. Not long after, he was quoted as saying (LA Times link):

Us NFL players, we’re just mad about NBA contracts right now, that’s all. I just want like $80 million. Those guys are getting like $150 [million]. It’s crazy. It’s insane.

While that obscures the blunt economics of a structure that compares players from a league that requires teams to carry 53-man rosters to one that requires a minimum of 13 players, it gets at a common refrain from players in the NFL right now, ESPECIALLY non-quarterbacks.

They don’t like the market for players in the NFL.

And from what we’ve seen this week for running backs, on one side from Bell and from the other on Murray, it’s easy to see why.

The window is small.

And ultimately, it’s changing the way we think (or should think) about running backs.

For years (good lord that is a link to 2011 when computers ran on steam energy and the graphs in it are gone but you get the idea), I railed against the idea of drafting a running back in the first round of the draft. I still think it’s a horrible idea in the first 24, 26, 20-whatever picks. But what’s become apparent, and maybe extreme, is that the market isn’t just agreeing with that.

It’s going past that.

The running back position now is the fourth-least valuable position on the market ahead of just safeties, tight ends and kickers/punters. And if the last few years are any indication, the safety market will surpass the running back market before we hit the new CBA.

It’s hard to figure out where things are headed specifically. It’s unavoidably obvious where things are headed generally.

Perhaps now that Bell has come to a point where he will have to test the open market to see what his true value is with Gurley’s future to be decided not long after, we’ll get a better sense of the running back position quantitatively in the modern era.

Qualitatively?

It’s perhaps lower than at any point in football history.