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The Steelers are finally letting Le’Veon Bell go. That’s a win for both sides

Pittsburgh won’t waste its transition tag on a player it likely wouldn’t have kept anyway.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Le’Veon Bell has made it clear he no longer wants to play in Pittsburgh. It took some convincing, but the Steelers are finally ready to let him leave.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert confirmed that the team won’t franchise or transition tag its former All-Pro tailback, clearing Bell’s final hurdle toward unrestricted free agency. That means he’ll be able to negotiate with any team willing to offer him the long-term, big-money contact he’s sought since 2017 once the NFL’s official free agent period begins on March 13.

It also ends his six-year tenure in the Steel City, something Bell doesn’t seem too wistful about:

Pittsburgh had two options to retain its star running back without caving in to his contract demands. It could have used its franchise tag on him for a third straight season, though that would have been prohibitively expensive. Franchising Bell in 2019 would have cost the team roughly $25.5 million — the average salary of the league’s top five players. It also wouldn’t have guaranteed Bell’s spot in the lineup; the veteran back eschewed $14.54 million in game checks in 2018 in order to sit out the season and set himself up for a 2019 payday.

The team also could have used its transition tag as a last ditch effort to retain Bell, though it likely wouldn’t have had much of an impact. Any team that would have wanted Bell would just have to offer him the contract Pittsburgh’s been so reticent to give him in order to pry him away from the franchise.

Instead, the Steelers will decline to use either unimpressive option in a decision that speaks to each side’s irreconcilable differences. Pittsburgh wants Bell in the lineup but not at his asking price, which is to be paid like a star running back and No. 2 wide receiver all in one. Bell wants either the record-setting contract he believes three All-Pro honors have earned him or the opportunity to seek it elsewhere.

Now he’ll get it, and hopefully find the recognition for which he’s longed.

How did the Steelers and Bell get here?

Bell sat out the entire 2018 season in a move that was equal parts self-preservation and protest. He’d worked to secure a robust paycheck after his rookie contract expired in 2017, but when the two sides couldn’t come to terms he returned to Pittsburgh under the team’s franchise tag. That one-year deal expired after the season, only for the Steelers to tag Bell once more when it became clear the club wouldn’t meet his demands for a larger deal.

That led to an extended holdout that saw the three-time Pro Bowler forfeit $14.54 million in game checks in the process. He also forfeited a bunch of cleats and other equipment, which his teammates emancipated from his locker with glee after his deadline to return to the team passed in November.

But that missed year also recharged his batteries for a run at free agency in 2019. The questions now are which teams will line up to offer him a long-term deal, and will that contract exceed the lightly guaranteed five-year, $70 million deal Pittsburgh reportedly offered last offseason.

What is the transition tag, and why won’t the Steelers use it?

The transition tag is the last real card Pittsburgh could have played in its showdown with Bell. It’s the watered-down light lager to the franchise tag’s imperial stout; it allows other teams to negotiate with a tagged player and even sign him to an offer sheet.

It would’ve kept Bell under Steelers’ control while the team works to hammer out a contract with him, though Bell would also be free to talk shop with other interested teams. The tag would mean Pittsburgh could have the right to match any contract offered to the star tailback, but if it declined there’s no compensation tied to his departure.

Here’s how we described the process in our tag explainer earlier in the year.

Similar to the non-exclusive tag, except the player gets paid an average of the top-10 salaries at his position, rather than top five. Transition-tagged players are free to negotiate with other teams, but unlike non-exclusive players, the original team gets no compensation if it fails to match an offer.

In short, the Steelers could kinda/sorta make Bell a restricted free agent with the tag, though they don’t stand to gain much in the process. If Bell got the contract he’s sought — the contract the Steelers have been loathe to give him — then there would’ve been little chance Pittsburgh would match the deal, allowing him to leave the team without any compensation.

If no one offered Bell a contract, he would’ve wound up on the Steelers’ roster with a $9.7 million price tag. This would’ve been extremely unlikely.

Rather than burn off the last of its ammunition, Pittsburgh is accepting defeat and regrouping. The franchise has plenty of turmoil elsewhere to deal with anyway.

Antonio Brown, Bell’s running mate for the first five years of his career, saw his frustrations boil over into a Week 17 benching and an eventual trade request. In the process, Pittsburgh saw its AFC North lead dissolve, only to wind up in the hands of the hated Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers currently have a shortage of goodwill running through their facility, and more contract drama with Bell would have kept their meter low in 2019.

Instead, cutting Bell loose allows the club to get its house in order and approach the offseason with a better idea of where its roster stands.

What now for Le’Veon Bell?

Bell is still a dynamic talent, but his hefty price tag limits his suitors. He wants to be paid like a top running back and a No. 2 wide receiver, putting his compensation somewhere north of $14M annually. That would also, ostensibly, include greater guarantees than the typically stingy Steelers had offered (for comparison’s sake, only $19 million of Antonio Brown’s 2017 $68M extension was guaranteed).

Todd Gurley’s four-year, $57.5 million extension will be the benchmark in negotiations, though it’s an imperfect comparison. Brown’s side will point to his proven track record of performance as a reason to exceed those limits. Negotiating teams will point to his age (27 years old), dip in rushing efficiency in 2017 (his yards per carry dropped from 4.9 to 4.0), and the fact he sat all of 2018 out in order to lower that number.

Still, his past production means he’s due for the megadeal he’s chased, and he’ll head to a team with a combination of need in the backfield and ample salary cap space. Teams like the Jets, Colts, or Raiders are a few candidates.

Bell’s tenure in Pittsburgh ended on one of the sourest notes possible, but a clean break should benefit both sides. The tailback is now set to finally earn the giant free agent contract he’s sought since the 2016 season ended. The Steelers can move forward knowing James Conner is now the engine that powers their running game.

That’s a win for Bell, but now he’s got to prove himself all over again to justify his two-year feud in Pittsburgh.