It’s official: Le’Veon Bell won’t play for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season. He had until 4 p.m. Tuesday to end his months-long holdout, but decided against it, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
That probably won’t derail the Steelers, who are rolling without him, but Bell may have just forever changed the way big-name players play hardball with teams.
Bell, who was a Pro Bowler in 2014, 2016, and 2017, still hasn’t had a chance to negotiate his worth as a free agent. His rookie contract expired in 2017, but the Steelers used the franchise tag to keep him in Pittsburgh and then did the same in 2018. But by sitting out, he gives the Steelers few options to keep him for another year.
A third franchise tag would pay Bell like a franchised quarterback — a number that was over $23 million in 2018. That’s an unrealistic figure for the Steelers and leaves only the transition tag as a way to keep Bell, assuming they can’t blow him away with a contract offer.
That might not even be an avenue the Steelers want to pursue. The transition tag isn’t cheap and wouldn’t even guarantee Bell stays.
Regardless, the Steelers probably won’t be able to keep Bell from negotiating on the open market and signing the biggest offer he can find.
Bell probably accomplished his goals
There were two big objectives of Bell’s holdout:
1. Get paid the big bucks. That was the whole point, right?
Pittsburgh offered a five-year, $70 million deal to Bell that looks glossy from a distance, but wasn’t nearly as lucrative when you read between the lines. It did little to guarantee he’d even see a quarter of that $70 million. By comparison, Todd Gurley’s four-year, $60 million extension included $45 million in guarantees.
Now Bell is going to do what he’s wanted to do from the beginning: let the free market determine his worth.
There are a few reasons teams may hesitate to offer big money. His holdout, the value of the running back position, and the emergence of James Conner — which may have proven Bell didn’t transform the Steelers offense as much as it seemed — all could dissuade potential buyers.
But it’ll only take a few interested teams in his All-Pro skillset to foster a bidding war that drives up his price. He’ll almost definitely get to see that market.
2. Dodge wear and tear. Rams receiver Cooper Kupp became the 48th player to suffer a torn ACL during the 2018 season when he went down in Week 10. There’s a tremendous amount of injury risk for players in the NFL, and the Steelers weren’t going to keep Bell’s mileage down.
In 2017, he led the NFL with 406 touches, making him the only player in the last three seasons to exceed 400. Gurley is on pace this season to finish with a league-leading 381 touches.
The emergence of Conner cut down on his potential usage, but with Bell likely to leave, the Steelers didn’t have much reason to make sure there’s still tread on the tires. Bell avoided that.
It’s a path others stars could now follow
Bell wasn’t the only player who held out this year. Earl Thomas, Aaron Donald, and Khalil Mack all missed training camp and preseason, and a few others sat for a while in the summer too.
Each of those players had a completely different outcome to their holdout.
Donald got the contract he was aiming for. Thomas begrudgingly showed up and then broke his leg in Week 4. Mack was traded to the Bears, who gave him the deal he was hoping for.
All three validated the idea of holding out. Donald and Mack showed leveraging your skills can force a team to open up their wallet, and Thomas’ injury showed why players don’t want to report without a new contract.
Bell took it to a new level by putting his foot down and threatening to sit an entire year. Just the fear that other players could follow suit may end up helping players. Consider this explanation of the Mack trade, from Raiders owner Mark Davis, via ESPN:
“Word came back through certain players that know him and talk to him and know me as well, that he wasn’t going to come in. He was going to do the Le’Veon Bell (holdout). At that point, I said, ‘F it. The guy hasn’t talked to anybody. We’ve got to do something.’”
The trade ended up making Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
Bell isn’t the first to sit out an entire season — defensive linemen Sean Gilbert did it in 1997 and got a record-breaking contract as a consequence. But two decades later, franchise tag rules are different. Unlike when Gilbert held out, multiple uses of the franchise tag launch the cost and put pressure on teams. It chased Kirk Cousins out of Washington, but Bell is the first to really leverage that against a team.
The messy impasse between the Steelers and Bell could mean the rules for franchise tags are a subject of discussion in the negotiation of the next collective bargaining agreement in 2021.
But for now, if future players want blockbuster deals — or at least the chance to pursue one in free agency — there’s a blueprint in place. Thanks to Bell, holding out as long as necessary is a strategy other star players can use to get paid what they deserve.