PITTSBURGH -- When Le'Veon Bell turned down the Pittsburgh Steelers' five-year, $70 million deal last offseason, they entertained the idea that maybe he simply didn't want to be in Pittsburgh anymore.
The way Bell saw it, that deal looked great on paper but wasn't packed with enough guarantees ($17 million) to take the field again on a franchise tag, even if that meant skipping $855,000 per week.
But the math still doesn't quite add up after Bell signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the New York Jets that can rise to $61 million with incentives. The Jets deal doubles the Steelers' guarantees, which appeases Bell.
If Bell played a healthy season in 2018, though, would he have gotten the same deal from the Jets now, ensuring he's $14.5 million up thanks to the 2018 tag? Perhaps, though Bell didn't want to assume that risk. The possibility of another 400 touches getting him seriously hurt was a concern for Bell. The market held up for safety Earl Thomas, 29, from earning $55 million over four years this free agency despite breaking his fibula in late September. But injuries create doubt that players want to eliminate.
Either way, Pittsburgh privately felt Bell viewed their guarantee structure as an easy out. Typically, all base salaries are non-guaranteed in a Steelers contract, which only ensures the signing bonus and maybe a first-year roster bonus. But the team structures its deals as if the first two years might as well be guaranteed. They intend to pay productive, hard-working players for the entirety of a contract, and they usually do. They also willingly restructure contracts, which adds more dead money and makes a player harder to cut.
That probably shakes out to about a 90-95 percent guarantee, which would have netted Bell $30-plus million over the first two years. A loose guarantee, not a true one, which is what Bell sought.
Playing those percentages, the Steelers had reason to wonder why Bell didn't just take their deal instead of bet on resetting a market that didn't really want resetting. Bell entered free agency seeking $15 million to $16 million per year. This deal comes in at $13.125 million with the chance to hit $15 million. Clarity on that structure will come in the next few days when the full contract is released, and how the first two years are structured will be key. If reports of $28 million due to Bell at signing are correct, then that eclipses David Johnson's money due at signing ($24.68 million) and Todd Gurley’s signing payout of $21.95 million.
The optimist's view is Bell took a year off and still got mostly what he wanted. But the Steelers' original deal offered more overall earning power, and they are still sort of dumbfounded Bell didn't take it.
Bell had a chance to play a decade in Pittsburgh on his way to nearly $100 million in earnings and a permanent place in black-and-gold folklore.
While Antonio Brown's relationship with the organization -- including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin -- frayed, Bell generally had no issues with the team outside of the rocky negotiations. He was well-liked in the locker room and worked hard.
Staying there wasn't in Bell's plans, and the Steelers still don't know exactly why.
Especially after this week.