Le’Veon Bell doesn’t want to be a Steeler unless he can glean a market-resetting long-term contract. Pittsburgh has made it clear it won’t meet his demands. And saddling him with the franchise tag for a third straight season wouldn’t just be prohibitively expensive — it would also likely trigger another lengthy holdout.
Bell failed to report to the team’s practice facility by Nov. 13, which means per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, he was obligated to sit the whole season out. With the 2018 season now over, he’ll be able to hit reset on his career after a year-long game of chicken where neither side blinked.
The league’s transition tag could’ve helped the Steelers recoup some assets in an offseason trade, and even help Bell secure a front-loaded big money deal in the process.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Steelers were thinking about doing just that. They won’t, though.
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert says they will not put tag on Le'Veon Bell, thus he will become a UFA— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) February 20, 2019
Wait, what’s the transition tag?
The transition tag is a less-expensive version of the franchise tag that allows a player to garner contract offers from other interested teams. It offers a team the right of first refusal when it comes to one of its unrestricted free agents. That gives the free-agent-to-be more leverage than he’d have under the franchise designation — but it benefits his current team as well. The tagging franchise has the opportunity to match the terms of the contract its player would otherwise sign elsewhere.
Like the franchise tag, it also comes with a designated one-year contract. In this case, it’s the average salary of the top 10 highest-paid players at the tagged player’s position, or 120 percent of what the player earned the previous year. So, based on what Bell earned in 2017, the transition tag means he would be in line for the same $14.5 million that his franchise tag was supposed to be worth. That is, if he were to sign his transition tender (he wouldn’t).
Teams can use the transition tag once per season. Teams cannot use the transition tag and the franchise tag in the same year. And, unlike the franchise tag, if a player signs elsewhere, the club gets no compensation for its loss.
The transition tag effectively turns an unrestricted free agent into a restricted one, though without the added team security of receiving draft picks should the player leave. By tagging Bell, Pittsburgh could sit back and wait for other teams to make offers on the All-Pro tailback. Once he gets an offer to his liking, he’ll start the clock on the Steelers’ seven-day window to either match the contract or let him walk. That would give Pittsburgh the opportunity to re-sign Bell at a lower figure should his market never materialize, or use its transition tag-given right to sign him to an astronomical deal, then trade him to whichever interested party is offering the biggest return for Bell and his new contract.
Why didn’t Pittsburgh transition tag Bell?
It could’ve been a reasonable gambit for the club, but not a great one. James Conner has been a star in his own right filling in for Bell this past season season. Plus, teams rarely use the transition tag because it’s easy to game.
A team with oodles of cap space in 2019 — say, the Colts or Jets or Texans or really any of the 28 franchises carrying less salary into next year than Pittsburgh — could offer Bell a front-loaded contract. The Steelers would’ve had to match any deal to its exact terms, putting an incredible strain on their cap space.
A deal with big money over the first year or two would make sense, too. Bell isn’t getting any younger, so paying out the nose early in a contract to lessen the cost of a running back’s age 30+ seasons is a smart move. And Bell would happily sign any deal that gets him the guaranteed money for which he’s been searching, but especially so if he knows it puts Pittsburgh in a position where it can’t match.
On the other hand, the team doesn’t have many feasible options to recoup more than a supplemental draft pick in exchange for losing a homegrown talent. The Steelers could franchise tag Bell again, but that would be a major drain on the club’s offseason cap space in the lead up to any deal. Since Bell would be entering his third year under the designation, he would cost the team the average salary of the league’s five highest-paid quarterbacks — approximately $25-26 million, depending on how the rest of the year shakes out.
So the transition tag was on the table, but ultimately it probably wouldn’t have had much of an effect aside from earning Bell a contract that pays big over his first year or two with a new team. It would have at least given Pittsburgh the opportunity to retain Bell and extend the club’s window to work out a trade with a needy franchise. Thankfully for all parties, the Steelers are finally ready to just move on.