The deadline came and passed, and four players around the NFL got locked into their franchise tags after failing to come to terms on contract extensions with their teams. One of those was the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence, but the more high-profile situation was that of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell, who is among the elite running backs in the NFL today, turned down a contract offer from the Steelers that was reportedly worth $70 million over five years. According to the report, Bell wanted about $3 million more per year, and the guarantees in the Steelers’ offer (reportedly only $10 million) was not up to snuff for the running back. Bell’s agent has also been rather talkative:
Appearing on NFL Live, Le’Veon Bell’s agent Adisa Bakari said he understands how teams view the running back position but Bell’s skill set as an all-over-the-field playmaker transcends that constraint and will attract teams in 2019 as he approaches free agency— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) July 17, 2018
Via Le'Veon Bell's agent Adisa Bakari: "His intention was to retire as a Steeler. But now that there's no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will be Le'Veon's last season as a Steeler."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 16, 2018
More: "It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player."
It can remind one of DeMarco Murray’s contract talks with the Cowboys after the 2014 season, when Murray wanted more money than Dallas was willing to commit to a player at a position that doesn’t last long. The Cowboys ended up winning that standoff, as they got Ezekiel Elliott a year later while Murray failed to see similar success elsewhere and just retired at only 30 years of age.
Bell is in a similar situation, positioning himself as one of the best running backs in the league who deserves top dollar. For some people, all this drama makes them think of what could happen when Elliott comes to the same point:
I have a feeling that the PIT-Le'Veon Bell situation is just a preview of what's to come for DAL & Ezekiel Elliott.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) July 17, 2018
Elliott, of course, led the NFL in rushing as a rookie and is one of the few running backs who you could argue is better than Bell. Entering his third year, Zeke is already one of those players who could command top dollar in free agency. Unless something tragic happens between now and then, it should be a no-brainer that the Cowboys exercise their fifth-year option on Elliott, guaranteeing his services through 2020.
But what then? The Cowboys will have three options: 1) Franchise-tagging Zeke, which by then should cost them at least $14 million in fully guaranteed money for one season 2) Sign him to a contract extension that would have to be massive in size and comes with lots of guarantees, or 3) Let him go and look for a replacement, either in free agency or the draft.
Dallas used Option #3 with Murray and won that bet, but keep in mind that Murray was a third-round pick. Zeke was the fourth overall pick, a significantly bigger investment. Typically, you want to get more than just five years out of that kind of investment.
Luckily, the Cowboys might be able to just sign Zeke to a contract extension outright, and it could have a lot to do with new wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. There has been a lot of talk about the impact that Lal will bring to the Cowboys’ receiving corps and specifically about the idea that Dallas doesn’t need a number one receiver, but rather multiple different receivers who are great route runners. If this approach works out, the Cowboys can then justify not dedicating as much money to the receiver position as most teams do.
For example, Mike Evans currently accounts for 9.11% of the Buccaneers’ 2018 cap spendings, while Deandre Hopkins accounts for 7.86% of the Texans’ cap spendings. Next year, when Antonio Brown’s new contract takes effect, he’ll account for a whopping 12.95% of the cap, per early projections. By contrast, the contracts of Terrance Williams, Allen Hurns, and Cole Beasley combined account for 6.91%. Every receiver on the Cowboys’ roster right now - which will be trimmed down by the start of the regular season - accounts for 12.3% total.
By the 2021 offseason, when Elliott’s fifth-year option is up, the only current receivers that will still be under contract are the rookies, Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson. Between those two, only Gallup will have a base salary of over $1 million. It’s possible that players like Beasley or Hurns will be re-signed by that time, too, but the point here is that the new approach with Lal could put the Cowboys in a position where they can go down to spending roughly 8% of their cap on the receiver position between drafting players and signing players from the bargain bin.
In looking at the full breakdown of the Cowboys’ current cap situation, 48.47% is spent on their offense, 40.41% on their defense, and 4.26% on special teams. That is a very balanced figure, as teams with more offensive weapons typically spend between 55% and 58% on offense. Dallas’ offensive line accounts for eating up the most cap space of any positional group, with 26.6%. That makes sense and that number should remain mostly the same by 2021. The quarterback position currently sits very low at just 1.56% because their highest paid player, Dak Prescott, is playing on a fourth-round rookie contract. His contract ends after the 2020 season, and with no fifth-year option, his contract situation will be resolved one year before having to deal with Zeke. Who knows what the perception of Prescott will be by then, but let’s expect a big chunk of money to be allocated to the quarterback regardless of who is playing back there. For numbers’ sake, let’s assume the Cowboys allocate 10.79%, which is what the Panthers currently allocate to pay Cam Newton.
Then, between the quarterback and offensive line positions, the Cowboys would be allocating approximately 38.19%. Assuming Dallas doesn’t break the bank on any tight ends by then, they’d be allocating roughly 51.48% of their cap spendings on their entire offense minus Zeke. That gives them room to offer Zeke a multi-year contract that could end up taking 7% of their cap space. That’s roughly comparable to the commitment the Texans have made to Hopkins, and that type of deal would be considerably over the market value for a running back.
All of this admittedly relies on a ton of speculation, as this is a prediction of rosters and financial numbers four NFL seasons from now, and all of that could (and likely will) change drastically. Heck, the Cowboys might not even have the same coaching staff by then. It’s all rather premature, but in the wake of what seems to be an ugly divorce between Bell and the Steelers, the Cowboys are currently in a situation with Lal at the helm where they can realistically avoid the same kind of divorce and retain one of their best players.
All financial statistics courtesy of Spotrac.