NFL players loved Le'Veon Bell's radical decision to sit out a year and called it a 'game-changer'

  • NFL running back Le'Veon Bell made the radical move of sitting out the 2018 season to preserve his body before hitting free agency this offseason.
  • Amid a contract dispute, Bell was worried the Pittsburgh Steelers would hurt his value by giving him more touches, thus adding more wear-and-tear and risking injury before becoming a free agent.
  • Several NFL players who spoke to Business Insider were supportive of Bell, saying players need to take a stand and do what's right for themselves in the long-term.
  • The players also said that others around the NFL are starting to understand the business and are not willing to show teams the loyalty that has historically been forced onto them.
  • Players believe Bell will get a big contract, but how big could determine whether more players follow in Bell's footsteps.

NFL free agency will bring the long-awaited conclusion to Le'Veon Bell's bold strategy.

Bell sat out the 2018 NFL season when he refused to sign the one-year franchise tag for a second straight season. He and the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to agree on a long-term contract.

There was a belief Bell might report midway through the season to collect a portion of his salary while still cutting his overall workload in half, but he ultimately sat out the entire season.

The merits of Bell's decision are not yet known, but NFL players have his back.

"I loved it. I thought it was a game-changer," Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara said. "We've never really seen this in the NFL."

"I think it was an intelligent, well-thought-out decision," said Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan. "I don't think it was a decision out of impulse or emotion. I think it was well-thought-out. I think that he had a good group of people around him advising him. They had the long term in mind as opposed to the short term."

30 PHOTOS
Le'Veon Bell through his career
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Le'Veon Bell through his career
ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 09: Le'Veon Bell #24 of the Michigan State Spartans scores on a 41 yard touchdown in the second quarter during the game aginst the Michigan Wolverines during the game on October 9, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 03: Le'Veon Bell #24 of the Michigan State Spartans runs the ball in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the Big 10 Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 24: Le'Veon Bell of Michigan State runs the 40-yard dash during the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 24, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Leveon Bell attends the 10th Annual ESPN The Magazine Pre-Draft Party at The IAC Building on April 24, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 10: Injured running back Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on from the sideline during a preseason game against the New York Giants at Heinz Field on August 10, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Giants defeated the Steelers 18-13. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers is tackled by Kyle Wilson, New York Jets, during the New York Jets V Pittsburgh Steelers NFL regular season game at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, USA. 13th October 2013. Photo Tim Clayton (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 22: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on December 22, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Steelers defeated the Packers 38-31. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 05: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs for yardage during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on October 5, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 30: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes against the New Orleans Saints during the game on November 30, 2014 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 30: Ben Roethlisberger #7 hands the ball off to Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field on November 30, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 14: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs off the field after the game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on December 14, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 03: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches the game from the sideline in the first quarter against the Carolina Panthers during the preseason game at Heinz Field on September 3, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
October 25, 2015: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) during the NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 26: DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Le'Veon Bell #26 talk before a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 16: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on before a NFL game against the Miami Dolphins on October 16, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 13: Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Le'Veon Bell (26) stretches out to score a touchdown during the NFL Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 13, 2016, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The Cowboys defeated the Steelers with a final score of 35-30. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before a game against the New York Giants on December 4, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) looks on after a NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens on December 25, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The Steelers went on to win 31-27, advancing to the playoffs as the AFC's No. 3 seed. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs out to the field after being introduced during a NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens on December 25, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The Steelers went on to win 31-27, advancing to the playoffs as the AFC's No. 3 seed. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MP - JANUARY 15: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tosses the ball forward after gaining a first down against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 10, 2017: Running back LeVeon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers laughs as he plays catch with fans prior to a game on September 10, 2017 against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Pittsburgh won 21-18. (Photo by: 2017 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 24: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on September 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears won 23-17 in overtime. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 01: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Michigan USA, on Sunday, October 29, 2017. (Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 12: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) watches a video replay during the NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts on November 12, 2017, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 10: Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Le'Veon Bell (26) walks in before the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 10, 2017 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 10: Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Le'Veon Bell (26) looks on during the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 10, 2017 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 14: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball during the AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 14, 2018 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 14: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field on January 14, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 28: Runningback Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the AFC Team as he arrives to the NFL Pro Bowl Game at Camping World Stadium on January 28, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
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The rift between Bell and the Steelers was multifaceted. Bell felt he should be paid like a top running back and a top receiver — that reportedly raised the floor of what he wanted on his annual average salary.

NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that the Steelers offered Bell a five-year, $70 million contract, with $30 million guaranteed over two years. The deal, at the time, would have made Bell the highest-paid running back in the league. 

Bell's agent, Adisa Bakari, disputed the initial figures. The Steelers have historically not guaranteed money beyond the first year of the contract.

Rapoport later reported that $10 million was fully guaranteed as a signing bonus, with $33 million in "rolling guarantees" over the first two years.

The $14.5 million franchise tag would have paid Bell more guaranteed money, as the Steelers could have cut him after 2018, with only $10 million guaranteed. (It's unclear what the dead money would have been, an incentive for teams not to cut a player, depending on the number).

Bakari argued that if Bell were playing on the one-year tag, the Steelers could rack up Bell's touches without repercussion. In 2017, Bell totaled 406 touches. Bell and Bakari feared the Steelers giving Bell another 400, adding more mileage to a player at a position with short lifespans in the NFL.

Bakari had told reporters that Bell would report to camp later on and sign the franchise tender. He never did.

They decided to wait out the season, sending Bell to the open market more rested and preserved, ready to cash in on a career payday that would pay him through his prime, with more guarantees.

Read more: Le'Veon Bell's dramatic holdout is unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, and it could end up being a win for him

"If I had a chance to make $10 million tomorrow, but if I waited I could make $50 million, you gotta have the discipline and the discernment to kinda make that decision based on those parameters," Morgan said. "The NFL is 100% injury rate. You've seen what happened with [Seattle Seahawks safety] Earl Thomas. That could have easily happened to Le'Veon, and he could have been coming off of a bad injury, signing a one -year deal in this free agency year."

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Notable 2019 NFL free agents
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Notable 2019 NFL free agents

Le'Veon Bell, running back

2018 team: Pittsburgh Steelers

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Demarcus Lawrence, defensive end

2018 team: Dallas Cowboys

(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker

2018 team: Houston Texans

(Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Earl Thomas, defensive back

2018 team: Seattle Seahawks

(Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trey Flowers, defensive end

2018 team: New England Patriots

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Tevin Coleman, running back

2018 team: Atlanta Falcons

(Photo by Will Vragovic/Getty Images)

Dee Ford, outside linebacker

2018 team: Kansas City Chiefs

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Nick Foles, quarterback

2018 team: Philadelphia Eagles

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Mark Ingram, running back

2018 team: New Orleans Saints

(Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Ndamukong Suh, nose tackle

2018 team: Los Angeles Rams

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Golden Tate, wide receiver

2018 team: Philadelphia Eagles

(Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2018, file photo, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb (18) runs with the ball after making a reception in the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Los Angeles. The injured Packers receiver says that there is a pretty good chance that he’ll play on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals after missing a few weeks with a lingering hamstring injury. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit, File)
TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 16: Jay Ajayi #26 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs with the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 16, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Adrian Peterson, running back

2018 team: Washington Redskins

(Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

Chris Hogan, wide receiver

2018 team: New England Patriots

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Demaryius Thomas, wide receiver

2018 team: Houston Texans

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, safety

2018 team: Washington Redskins

(Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Tyler Eifert, tight end

2018 team: Cincinnati Bengals

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jason McCourty, cornerback

2018 team: New England Patriots

(Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Tyrod Taylor, quarterback

2018 team: Cleveland Browns

(Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback

2018 team: New Orleans Saints

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Stephen Gostkowski, kicker

2018 team: New England Patriots

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Terrell Suggs, linebacker

2018 team: Baltimore Ravens

(Photo by: 2018 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)

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A positional problem

Justin Forsett appreciated what Bell did for the running back position.

Forsett, played nine years in the NFL, retiring in 2017. He amassed 3,890 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career, making $11 million, according to Spotrac. Forsett said he was glad to see Bell stick up for his real value.

"Being a running back and seeing most guys cave in when it comes to contract negotiations — most players, just in general — I was impressed that he stuck with his guns," Forsett said. "He bet on himself."

Bell's decision was calculated, but it is indeed a bet.

Now 27, Bell is in the prime of an NFL player's career. But for running backs that prime is shorter than other positions. Running back is a physically demanding position. When players lose their pop, teams are quick to move on.

There is a belief in the NFL that teams don't need to sign or draft the top running backs — the position might be plug-and-play. Add any player with speed, strength, vision, and a good offensive line, and they can succeed.

Forsett disputed the reputation the position is getting.

"The position is devalued two times throughout the year — one is during the draft, and the other is during free agency," Forsett said. "So, any other time of the year, you're talking about having a strong run game, having a strong defense in order to win championships, and have a chance at winning a Super Bowl.

"So it's still a position that's needed and required to be successful, but for whatever reason, it's a position that teams and GMs and owners, they don't wanna pay the position."

Bell and his camp may have looked at DeMarco Murray as a cautionary tale. Murray racked up 1,845 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns with the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. He was due for a new contract at the end of the season, and the Cowboys offered him a four-year, $24 million contract. He instead signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for five years, $42 million.

In 2015, Murray had just 702 yards and 6 touchdowns on 3.6 yards per rush. Forsett noted that Murray had a 1,000-yard, Pro Bowl season in 2016 with the Tennessee Titans. The next year, however, Murray had fewer than 700 yards on 3.6 yards per carry. He retired before the 2018 season.

"Being 30 at the running back position, it's a different 30 than somebody on the defensive line or a linebacker. It's just different," Morgan said. "Because they're carrying the ball a lot, especially in [Bell's] case, he's accounting for a large percentage of a team's offense, so he's taking a lot of wear and tear on his body. With every year there's a new crop of guys. He becomes more and more dispensable the longer he is in the league. So, he has to strike while the iron is hot. You don't know what the market is gonna be in a year or two from now. Especially given that he's not getting younger."

A new era of player empowerment

NFL players have closely watched how the players in the most player-friendly league have handled their business — the NBA.

It can be seen in the case of Antonio Brown. Brown was not happy with how things were going with the Steelers. He also wanted more money.

Brown essentially forced his way out of Pittsburgh. He criticized Ben Roethlisberger and the team culture. He said the only teams that should call him were the ones that would pay him. He limited the trade market with the threat of not reporting wherever he was sent.

On Sunday, he was traded to the Oakland Raiders for a third-round and fifth-round pick, a haul that, frankly, is not worth as much as Brown. On top of it, he received a three-year, $50 million contract with $30 million guaranteed from the Raiders.

Read more: The Raiders landed Antonio Brown in a bargain trade and are now set up for a big offseason

Though some in the NFL world disagreed with Brown's tactics, he got what he wanted. Brown exerted his force upon the Steelers, not unlike NBA players who have forced trades with the threat of free agency and becoming a distraction if they are not dealt.

"I feel like the NBA got it right so much earlier than us ... They know their earning power," Amukamara said. "Look at what's going on with Anthony Davis! The fact that a player can ... ask for a trade and ask for out, I never heard of that.

"I'm not putting shame in anybody's game. You wanna take care of your career. You know how much your earning power is. You know how fast your window is closing. Guys are just starting to see that and take advantage of it."

Amukamara and Morgan both said that football's culture forces a team-first mentality on players — players should take pay cuts or team-friendly contracts, or not let business get in the way of football.

Indeed, Bell's holdout seemed to impact the Steelers. Players called it a distraction. When Bell officially did not report, players raided his locker.

Read more: Steelers players are raiding Le'Veon Bell's locker for shoes and suits after the running back failed to report to the team

Bell also received criticism from analysts and fans alike. Some argued he was unprofessional and that he should have thought of his teammates. Some noted he was also turning down guaranteed money, with no certainty he would ever make it back.

"It seems like they had a whole lot of other issues going on in that Steelers locker room this year that they had to overcome," Forsett said.

"I think guys are understanding more and more the business of the NFL, and they're not falling into the trap of team loyalty," Morgan said. "Because that is essentially — what it is, is a trap. They try to paint the picture of being loyal to a team, signing a team-friendly deal, do-it-for-your-teammates type of thing. Like I said earlier, there's no loyalty. So whenever your contract situation becomes disadvantageous for a team, they're gonna do what's best for them."

"Le'Veon gets it," Amukamara said, "The teams are going to do what's in the best interest for them. The Steelers are going to do what's in the best interest for the Steelers."

He added: "I think a lot of players are just taking it upon themselves. 'Yes, I love this team. Yes, I love the fans, and I love this game of football. But at the end of the day, the person who has my best interests at heart is myself.'"

All three players said teammates should be understanding of other players' business decisions.

"At the end of the day, when I'm done playing football in five years, are you gonna be there helping me out financially if I need it?" Morgan said. "Chances are, we're not even gonna be in contact with each other."

Morgan said he understands why players would be upset — a player of Bell's caliber affects winning and losing. Amukamara noted that for quarterbacks and coaches, the win-loss record could be impacted. Even playoff checks are stake.

"You gotta do what's best for you at the end of the day," Morgan said. "That's what it's all about."

Said Amukamara: "I would say guys are just staying woke. They really just understand the situations and what's at stake."

Will Bell's holdout pay off?

Indeed, other players are rooting for Bell to get his payday.

But how will that payday look?

Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley may have set a new standard when he signed a four-year, $60 million contract, with $45 million guaranteed. Before Gurley, the biggest running back contract in the NFL in terms of total value was the Atlanta Falcons' DeVonta Freeman with $41 million.

Gurley is three years younger than Bell, a significant number when a player is getting 300 or more touches per year.

There is speculation that Bell could end up with the Oakland Raiders and get a similar deal to his former Steelers teammate in Brown — three years, $50 million, with $30 million guaranteed.

On the surface, it seems like a realistic deal. It would take Bell to 30 years old — historically a falling-off point for running backs — and guarantee him the second-most money among running backs in the NFL (the Arizona Cardinals' David Johnson also got $30 million guaranteed in a three-year, $39 million extension).

Would such a deal be a win for Bell? It's unclear.

How much Bell gets in free agency should be a significant point of interest in the NFL. If his gamble pays off, will other players follow suit? 

"I think there will be more situations like this," Morgan said. He believes Bell will get what he's looking for in free agency.

"Somebody had to go out there and really stand up for the position, so to speak," Forsett said. "I'm glad that he was confident and took a chance on himself. I'm hoping that he does get his payday, and I'm sure somebody's gonna give him money. I just hope it's what he was looking for."

The NFL world will be watching.

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