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Le'Veon Bell's financial fight for running backs everywhere

PITTSBURGH -- As if NFL running backs needed another sobering reminder of their declining market, 2017 free agency happened. Nearly two weeks into new league year, one of the best backs of this generation, Adrian Peterson, remains unemployed. Eddie Lacy settled for a one-year prove-it deal with a weight clause. At least 25 unrestricted free-agent tailbacks are unemployed, more than any other NFL position.

Le'Veon Bell -- a semblance of financial hope for the modern back -- can either succumb to this distressed landscape or lift it up. The litmus test for backs everywhere: Can a 25-year-old who creates yards on his own, catches passes like a slot receiver and carries a $12.1-million franchise tag into negotiations reset the running back market in a resounding way over the next four months?

Matching or surpassing LeSean McCoy's league-leading $8 million per year is possible, if not likely. But where exactly Bell's number falls isn't so clear-cut for some.

Former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage says Bell is a "special player," undoubtedly one of the best for the playoff-ready Pittsburgh Steelers. Savage also believes the Steelers have leverage because of Bell's position, his history with injuries (missed action in three straight playoffs) and suspensions in back-to-back seasons for drug-related offenses.

"If Le'Veon Bell wants to get a long-term deal, this is going to be his best and sort of only chance to get that done," said Savage, now a front office analyst for ESPN. "In general with running backs, the supply so far outweighs the demand. If I went down 20 tailback names in the draft, I'd say a lot of those guys could play some role in a backfield by committee. It's such a fungible asset. So for as great as he is, that challenge is there."

Bell is not in the same discussion as Lacy, who hasn't produced a 1,000-yard season since 2014, or Peterson, whose prime-earning years have long passed. But Bell does represent a position that pays less despite its central role in a team's success.

The five highest-paid running backs in 2012 got $10.8 million per year on average, compared to $7.3 million in 2017 (looking at long-term deals only, not franchise tags like Bell's), despite both years producing 19 rushers with at least 200 carries and a salary cap that's ballooned 47 percent since 2011.

Even in Bell's own division, opposing starters Isaiah Crowell, Jeremy Hill and Kenneth Dixon play on modest rookie deals and share backfields.

With Peterson's monster $14 million per year contract officially off the Minnesota Vikings' books, the drop to McCoy was precipitous.

If Bell's salary vaults the highest-paid tailbacks, the Steelers will make him earn it.

The Steelers typically don't structure contracts with front-loaded guarantees outside the signing bonus and maybe a roster bonus after year one or two. J.I. Halsell, a former Washington Redskins salary cap official and free-agent consultant, calls the Steelers' contracts more "cash-flow deals" for that reason.

The tailback market can help Bell in this case, Halsell said, because surpassing McCoy's number is manageable.

"If that [McCoy] deal is a few years old, and we know the cap has increased, and we know he's one of, if not the top, running backs in the game, you can make the argument Le'Veon should be a $10-million-per-year running back," Halsell said. "That's not an unreasonable number."

The Steelers can assuage concerns about Bell's missed games by adding per-game, roster-bonus incentives to his contract, Halsell said.

Savage also wouldn't be surprised if Bell hits the $10 million mark because of his importance to the team as a rusher and receiver, something he can employ more as he hits his late 20s. Bell used both skills to produce 157 yards from scrimmage per game in 2016, third-most in NFL history for a tailback.

What could hurt Bell, Savage said, is aiming for Peterson-type money. Bell playfully suggested he's worth $15 million per year in a rap song last summer, but that was before his three-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Teammate Antonio Brown is hitting that number thanks to a mega-extension signed in February, becoming the fifth receiver to hit that threshold in a league that values quarterback-receiver continuity. Bell was his own team's MVP in 2016, but Brown was always getting more money because of the dynamics involved.

That's why Bell must find a way to maximize his worth without using the franchise tag to his disadvantage. Running backs don't have the same freedoms as, say, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who can play out his franchise tag and parachute into a quarterback-starved clubhouse through free agency.

"Maybe the Steelers would pay him the franchise number and be done. Who knows?" Savage said. "You don't want to push so far that you push yourself out the door. A huge number would stick out like a sore thumb at that position. But a good number certainly seems possible given his talents."

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is on record that he wants Bell to retire a Steeler, and the franchise only gives big contracts to players they think are capable of playing them out.

Bell recently joked from his locker that his performance as a second-round pick in 2013 helped convince teams they should invest in tailback talent earlier in the draft, a nod to top-10 picks Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott.

Before those two test the true value of the running back in a few years, Bell can pay it forward once again.

"He can set a new standard," Halsell said.