Le’Veon Bell will play this season under the franchise tag — that is, if he actually signs it. Bell and the Steelers failed to come to an agreement on a long-term deal before the July 17 deadline for franchise-tagged players.
If Bell signs the $12.12 million tag, he will be highest-paid running back in the league this season. That’s substantially more than next back in line, LeSean McCoy, who averages just over $8 million per year on his current deal with the Buffalo Bills. But Bell doesn’t have security beyond the upcoming season. He is now set to be a free agent in 2018.
Bell is one of the best running backs in the league, and he’s a key member of the “Killer B’s” — Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown — that make the Steelers offense so difficult to defend. He’s also only 25 years old and unarguably in his prime. And now, he has a little extra motivation for next season:
I guess I just gotta get better...— Le'Veon Bell (@L_Bell26) July 17, 2017
What are Bell’s options now?
Bell could sign the franchise tag and hope it leads to a longer deal next offseason. It’s not quite the $15 million Bell dropped bars about on his rap track “Focus,” but there’s something to be said for making more than every other running back in the NFL this year.
Earlier this offseason, Bell pulled a pretty good April Fools’ prank, tweeting that he wouldn’t play under the tag, though he later said that wasn’t part of his plan. His leverage is minimal now anyway. If he wants to play at all this season, he will almost certainly have to sign his tender. He can’t get a long-term deal from the Steelers until after the season. About all he can do is get them to promise not to tag him again next year.
Bell could decide to hold out during training camp, and perhaps beyond. But if he doesn’t sign it by the start of the season, he’ll miss out on a $713,000 paycheck for every week he skips.
Right now, Bell is not under contract with the Steelers until he signs the tag. That also puts him at risk if he gets injured. Two years ago, Jason Pierre-Paul ended up taking a pay cut when he was hurt in a fireworks accident. He hadn’t signed his tender, and the Giants rescinded the tag, later giving him a smaller one-year deal.
The Steelers could rescind the tag, but then Bell would immediately become a free agent. It’s unlikely that they’d let one of their key playmakers slip away so easily and with less than two months before the season begins.
Why didn’t the Steelers lock down Bell?
Bell’s history of off-field trouble may have impacted the team’s approach to negotiating with him this offseason. He’s served two suspensions, one in each of the past two seasons, for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse.
Bell says he hasn’t smoked marijuana since 2014, and now that he’s in a contract year, he’ll need to prove that he can stay out of trouble.
Injuries are the other concern with Bell, and one that he can’t necessarily control. He missed the first three games of his rookie season with a foot sprain, then missed the end of his third season after suffering a torn MCL. He just made his postseason debut last season, his fourth in the NFL, and then missed the bulk of the Steelers’ AFC Championship showdown with the Patriots due to a groin injury that required postseason surgery to repair.
The failure of the Steelers and Bell to come to an agreement on a long-term deal is also commentary on the way the league values running backs these days. Looking at the recent success of David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jordan Howard, teams have found younger, and cheaper, talent at the position in the draft.
Meanwhile, veteran backs have had a tougher time on the free agent market. Adrian Peterson, once the highest-paid running back in the league, took a two-year, $7 million deal with the Saints. Eddie Lacy and LeGarrette Blount each signed one-year deals with new teams. DeAngelo Williams, Bell’s backup the past two seasons, is still a free agent.
Bell also has a lot of tread on his tires for a player who has suited up for a full 16-game season just once so far. He’s carried the ball 908 times in his career and has averaged 24 touches per game. Even though he’s been productive — putting up 128.7 yards per scrimmage on average — teams still view it as a risk to pony up for running backs, even ones as versatile as Bell.
What does this mean for the Steelers this year?
Bell isn’t Pittsburgh’s only star, but tagging him ensured that the Steelers would keep their key offensive pieces in place for at least 2017.
Roethlisberger hinted that he might be considering retirement this offseason, but as expected, he’s back. Brown signed a $68 million extension this offseason, locking him up until the end of the 2020 season with a possible two-year option to carry the talented receiver through 2022.
Bell’s presence helps Roethlisberger and Brown, too. His consistent production on the ground balances out the offense and makes it easier for Roethlisberger to connect with Brown and the other receivers through the air. Defenses also have to account for Bell’s threat as a receiver.
Despite missing those three games last year for a suspension, Bell still finished fifth in the league in rushing with 1,268 yards, and he had seven touchdowns. He added an impressive 616 receiving yards and two touchdowns through the air.
After the season, Bell could be tagged again by the Steelers, but it’d cost them $14.5 million, which is huge money for a running back. The transition tag is a cheaper option that would allow Bell to negotiate with other teams as a free agent, and the Steelers would have the opportunity to match any offer.
The Steelers could also try to negotiate a long-term deal with him again, but their salary cap situation could pose a problem. The team is only projected to have about $32 million in cap space for 2018, according to Over the Cap.
When Bell is on the field, he’s a special player. As long as he continues to produce at a high level, Bell should have plenty of suitors and could command more than Pittsburgh would have to spend.
If Bell signs his tag, the Steelers should be Super Bowl contenders in 2017. They made it to the AFC Championship last year, but then their offense sputtered without Bell.
After this season, though, the Steelers will face more uncertainty on offense. It’s possible Bell will find himself with a new team next season, and the other backs currently on the Pittsburgh roster — Fitzgerald Toussaint, Knile Davis, and rookie James Conner — aren’t as versatile or as talented as Bell. If that’s the case, the Steelers could end up regretting the chance to lock him down.