Le’Veon Bell is locked into a one-year, $14.544 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The two sides failed to agree to a long-term deal before the July 16 deadline, according to Adam Schefter.
The Steelers reportedly offered Bell a five-year deal that would have paid him around $30 million over the first two years of the contract. With a guaranteed $14.5 million this year on the tag, it’s likely he could beat that initial two-year, $30 million outlay on the first year of a free agent deal in 2019.
By NFL rule, players who receive the franchise tag have until the July deadline to agree to a multi-year contract. If no deal is reached, they will play under a one-year contract that pays them at least an average of the top five paid players at the position. Because Bell received the franchise tag in 2017 as well, he’ll get 120 percent of the $12.12 million salary he earned a year ago.
But the most significant ramification of the failure to agree to a new contract is that it means Bell is likely down to his final season with the Steelers. Bell’s agent made it clear that’s what they expect to happen.
“His intention was to retire as a Steeler. But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler,” Adisa Bakari said, via Schefter. “It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player.”
to all my Steeler fans, my desire always has been to retire a Steeler...both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times...to the fans that had hope, I’m sorry we let youu down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date...— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 16, 2018
The Steelers said they’ll try again for a deal after the season.
Statement from GM Kevin Colbert on Le’Veon Bell: pic.twitter.com/APTMajqdbF— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) July 16, 2018
Bell sat out training camp and the preseason last year in a similar situation. A report Tuesday said that same situation is likely to play out this season.
What led up to now?
The 2013 second-round pick wasn’t a Pro Bowler as a rookie, but Bell was still a star right from the start for the Steelers. He finished his first year with 1,259 yards from scrimmage and eight rushing touchdowns. The following season, he established himself as one of the NFL’s elite running backs when he had a franchise-record 2,215 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns.
Some of that momentum from his first two seasons was derailed by suspensions and injuries, though.
He received a three-game suspension at the beginning of the 2015 season for a DUI and substance abuse violation that was reduced to two games after an appeal. But his 2015 season lasted less than two months before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 8.
A year later he returned, but not before serving another suspension — this time for three games due to a missed drug test.
Bell returned better than ever, and finished the 2016 season with 1,884 yards from scrimmage — third-best in the NFL that year — despite playing in only 12 games.
Contract troubles first starting brewing in 2016. Shortly before receiving his second suspension in as many years, Bell was already making it clear that he was looking for a gigantic amount of money. A rap song released by Bell in summer 2016 included the lyric “Imma need 15 a year and they know this.”
He clarified in an interview with ESPN that he’s “not a greedy guy” and that he just wants to be valued.
But $15 million per year is close to double what any running back in the NFL makes, so it was clear that Bell was shooting high.
So it wasn’t too surprising when the Steelers chose to give Bell the franchise tag after his Pro Bowl year in 2016. With two suspensions and a serious knee injury in the two years prior for Bell, it made sense that Pittsburgh wanted to be cautious instead of giving the running back a record-breaking amount.
While a deal reportedly came close to coming together prior to the July 2017 deadline, it didn’t happen and Bell was locked into a one-year, $12.12 million contract. One of the sticking points was that Bell wanted a contract that reflects his contributions on the ground, as well as his production as a receiver.
In 2017, Bell was again one of the most productive players in the NFL with 1,946 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. But despite Bell threatening retirement if he received the franchise tag again, that’s exactly what the Steelers did to keep Bell earlier this year.
In June, he seemed hopeful the two sides would reach an agreement on a new deal.
“We’re a lot closer than we were last year at this time,” Bell said on NFL Network. “I’ve got confidence we’ll get it done.”
But just like last year, it didn’t get done. With Bell due to make $14.544 million under the franchise tag in 2018, it became even less likely that the Steelers would be able to find a number that would work for all parties.
Bell will be with the Steelers in 2018, but it’ll almost definitely be his last season in Pittsburgh. There’s also the question of whether or not he’ll show up when the season starts. ESPN’s Adam Schefter hinted Monday morning that Bell was prepared to sit out the first half of the year if he didn’t have a new deal, in part to save some wear and tear before he hits free agency next year.
If the Steelers gave Bell the franchise tag a third time, he’d be due $17.45 million in 2019 — a number that the team will likely deem unreasonable. And given the inability of Bell and Pittsburgh to agree to a contract over the last two years, it would be shocking if they finally managed to bridge the gap next spring with free agency looming.
Bell is going to be one of, if not the most prized free agent of the 2019 offseason. The Steelers will have to blow his socks off with an offer to keep him from finally testing the market to see what the rest of the NFL thinks of his value.
Until then, there’s nothing left for Bell to do but continue to show he’s worth a lot. Last year he didn’t participate in training camp or preseason, and reported to the facility in September — just nine days before the beginning of the regular season. Expect Bell to steer clear of camp and preseason again in 2018.
Pittsburgh drafted James Conner in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but gave him just 32 touches as a rookie while leaning heavily on Bell. With their three-time Pro Bowl running back likely leaving after the upcoming season, the Steelers are set up to turn to Conner as the future of the position.