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Will Le’Veon Bell’s free agency reset the market for the NFL’s best running backs?

The NFL has moved away from shelling out big bucks for running backs. But Bell could help turn the tide next season.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After failing to agree on a contract extension with the Pittsburgh Steelers, All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell is set to play out 2017 on a one-year deal. By turning down Pittsburgh’s overtures, the 25-year-old is betting he can make a splash in free agency after one more explosive season at Heinz Field.

The only question now is what kind of market awaits Bell — and the league’s other top tailbacks — in an NFL that’s slowly diverting from the “you don’t need a featured back” trend of the past five years?

According to reporter Tom Pelissero, Bell turned down a deal that would have averaged $14 million per year over his next three seasons. Instead, he’ll make a shade over $12 million — fully guaranteed — as the team’s designated franchise player. A repeat of his 2016 performance, in which he gained more than 100 yards per game on 4.9 yards per carry, could eclipse that extra $30 million in guarantees.

As Kirk Cousins pointed out this week, guaranteed money is what NFL players are after. If Bell can lock down a huge guarantee in his second long-term contract, he’ll be a rarity among NFL runners. The only two current tailbacks with guaranteed money exceeding $20 million at signing are a pair of recent first-round picks — Ezekiel Elliott and rookie Leonard Fournette.

Bell can ride the NFL’s shifting preference for star RBs all the way to a big payday in 2018

A massive deal for Bell would reflect the rising tide of NFL opinion back toward a lead-dog system in the backfield. Partially spurred by the Patriots’ success with a platoon-style rushing attack, teams had avoided paying big money on running talent the past five years. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell points out, there are no franchises egregiously overspending on tailbacks this year, a testament to the league’s uncharacteristic restraint when it comes to doling out cash at a position that churns through talent — and takes a lot of punishment.

Since 2012, only three free agent running backs have signed deals with at least $10 million in guarantees attached — DeMarco Murray (traded after one season in Philadelphia), Chris Ivory (averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 2016), and Lamar Miller (a career-low 4.0 yards per carry in his first season with Houston). It suffices to say, these investments have failed to pan out for the teams that made them.

Part of that lull is because teams with franchise backs locked their players down to long-term extensions. Adrian Peterson stayed with the Vikings thanks to an $86 million extension back in 2011. LeSean McCoy inked a $45 million deal to remain in Philadelphia, at least until Chip Kelly showed up. Marshawn Lynch got $30 million in 2012.

The de-emphasis of the No. 1 tailback was reflected at the draft as well. Between 2008 and 2012, 15 running backs were taken in the first round. Since then, that figure dropped to five, all selected between 2015 and 2017.

In the same span, single-player rushing totals dropped precipitously. In 2012, 16 players rushed for 1,000 yards or more. In 2015, that figure fell to seven.

However, those three backs selected in the first round the past two seasons provide a strong argument in favor of spending on an elite runner. Todd Gurley regressed hard in one of the most notable sophomore slumps in recent history, but remains the Rams’ only real offensive threat. Elliott was a key factor in the Cowboys’ resurgence. Melvin Gordon overcame a slow start with the Chargers to be a Pro Bowl back.

Bell is a risk, but his game-changing nature makes him worth $50 million

Bell will be a commodity in a free agent marketplace with limited tailback options. While salary cap casualties could add to the list, his main competition so far are players like Eddie Lacy, Alfred Morris, and Terrance West. Draft-eligible players like Derrius Guice, Saquon Barkley, and Bo Scarbrough will give needy teams additional lower-cost options, but Bell’s versatile rushing and receiving from the backfield — he was the Steelers’ second-leading receiver last year, behind only Antonio Brown — makes him more valuable than anyone else.

Of course, there are caveats in place with Bell’s signing. He’s missed 14 regular season games the past two seasons thanks to a combination of injuries and league suspensions. He’s played in only three playoff games for his career: two dynamite performances against the Dolphins and Chiefs and then a letdown in last year’s AFC title game in which he suffered a groin injury. Bell is a game-changer, but he’s also filled with frustrating variables.

In 2015, one season after trundling into the playoffs with Josh Harris and Ben Tate as their remaining backs, the Steelers insured themselves against Bell’s frequent absences by signing DeAngelo Williams to be one of the league’s most expensive backups. With the veteran in the fold, Pittsburgh was able to play through the loss of one of its top playmakers, advancing to the Divisional Round and AFC Championship Game the past two years.

That’s a blueprint the Cowboys have followed, flanking Elliott with Morris and Darren McFadden. The Bills spelled McCoy with Mike Gillislee. It’s also the plan whoever winds up courting Bell in 2018 should follow as well; the tailback-by-committee plan isn’t dead, but it’s changed into a much more favorable split for star runners.

That lines Bell up to break the bank if he can live up to standards in 2017. The rise of the high-profile tailback should raise the salary of all the league’s young runners — and Bell is at the top of that list. His management can point to the big rookie deals players like Gurley and Elliott have signed as a baseline, using his versatility and experience to balance out concerns over his ability to stay on the field.on the field.

An affirming 16-game campaign this fall will pocket $12 million from the Steelers and $80+ million from his next team — some $45-50 million of which likely guaranteed. If Pittsburgh can’t commit to that kind of contract, the franchise will have to start from scratch when it comes to running back in 2018.

Whatever Bell gets in 2018 will define running back salaries for the next three years

Bell’s contract doesn’t just affect one player. The open market valuation of his services will stand as the template for other free agent contracts and hometown extensions for the near future. Cardinals running back David Johnson, who sprang for more than 2,100 yards from scrimmage last season, is on track to be an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Needless to say, he’s watching his colleague’s situation closely.

“I hope he gets the deal he deserves,” Johnson told’s Andy Benoit. “I hope it’s going to be the type of deal that cornerbacks get and quarterbacks get.”

Assuming he can avoid injuries and a franchise tag, his deal will undoubtedly be similar to what Bell ultimately earns. According to, running backs make, on average, the third-lowest salary among position groups. At $1.27 million, only fullbacks and long snappers will earn less in 2017.

Bell’s new contract can be the catalyst to a new era of high-paid runners in the NFL. First, he’s got to prove this one-year bet on himself can pay off by finding a way to stay on the field for 16 effective games.