One of the hottest topics that will continue to be discussed throughout the offseason in 2018, before and after the NFL Draft, will be the ongoing saga between the Pittsburgh Steelers as a franchise and team and their established veteran running back Le'Veon Bell. With all of the uncertainty surrounding how the parties have or have not come "to the table" during negotiation periods, there has been plenty of discussion surrounding the options the Steelers may have should Bell and his agent simply refuse to make serious attempts at coming to an agreement. After a podcast breakdown with SCU's own Brian Roach and a recent article from Mike Pelaia, contributor to SCU and host of Steel Nation Association, it feels like the right time to look at a few more details about Bell and the Steelers.
— Steel City Underground (@steelcityundrgr) March 25, 2018
Okay, as Steelers fans, we've all probably felt this way - at least a little bit - since the talks began and the Steelers opted to use the exclusive franchise tag on Bell for the second year. To explain the tag a little better, it helps to know that by using it the Steelers were not telling Bell they didn't value him. Just the opposite, in fact. An exclusive franchise tag is generally saved for players that a team values so much that they'd give up first-round picks (maybe even two) for that individual. The exclusive tag allows Bell to receive a one-year tender offer for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries in the league at that player's position for the current year or 120 percent of that player's previous salary, whichever is greater.
Per SpotTrac, Bell is at the top of the NFL in both total cash rankings ($14,544,000) and average rankings. By comparison (average cash rankings), Devonta Freeman (Atlanta Falcons) and LeSean McCoy (Buffalo Bills) are making $8,250,000 and $8,000,000 respectively. Next on the list is Jerick McKinnon (San Francisco 49ers) at $7,500,000 and Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars) at $6,787,711. If Bell is wanting to "set the market" for the top paid running back position in the NFL, he's already accomplished that. He doesn't need to push any harder to achieve what has already been achieved.
So, why hasn't Bell just signed the tender the Steelers offered him (which was the highest salary of his career, by the way)? The answer lies somewhere between Bell turning down an offer last year that would have paid him $42 million over the first three seasons, opting to play under the franchise tag for 2017, and the fact that Bell wants a better guarantee. "I'm playing for strictly my value to the team," Bell told ESPN in March. "I don't think I should settle for anything less than what I'm valued at." There has been no clarification from Bell as to who has set the market value outside of himself. And with the money he's making already much higher than Freeman or McCoy, it has led to interesting questions as to whether the Steelers should simply cut their losses by rescinding the franchise tag altogether.
As long as Bell has not signed the tender, and it appears he isn't interested in doing so any time soon, the Steelers can rescind their offer by removing the tag. In fact, Pelaia said this:
I have been a proponent of paying Bell fifteen million a year for the next four years. I felt like he should be locked to the team for at least that long. He’s just been that valuable. Or so I thought. But, I’m changing my mind. At the price Bell is costing the Steelers, $14.5 million dollars this year, if he signs the tag, isn’t worth it. He’s beginning to decline.
And Mike isn't wrong. Bell looked rusty as an old ox cart when he finally did join the team in 2017 and he didn't look the shiny penny he had previously. With two banned substance grievances against him leveled by the NFL front office, missed games in previous seasons due to injury and a less-impressive showing last year, the proponents for cutting Bell loose from the tag are growing. Has Bell even given the Steelers a complete season since he's been in Pittsburgh?
Maybe. Maybe not. He's expressed a ton of interest in a music career and has spent time hanging out with music moguls, so maybe it's not about football? Maybe it's about what Bell sees as "his brand", and if so, there is a legitimate reason for the Steelers to be concerned about offering him a big-money, long-term deal.
Lest I digress, I have to say that I understand where Pelaia is coming from and agree that having a single, premier back does not always equate to Super Bowl Championships. The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles did use running back-by-committee effectively. Truly, when DeAngelo Williams got more touches beside Bell, the Steelers were less predictable out of the offensive backfield. With the re-signing of Stevan Ridley, Roosevelt Nix, Fitzgerald Toussaint and the return of James Conner, the Steelers have tools at their disposal to run a similar program.
The looming question then becomes this: Would the Steelers rescind the tag? Per ESPN Stats & Information (Evan Kaplan), over the past five years, the NFL has averaged just under seven franchise tag designations (per season). 33 of those tags were extended. 16 players played out the season under the tag. 16 players signed long-term contract extensions with their team. Only Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants signed a modified contract after July 15.
Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, "Management is irritated by the distractions Bell causes but hardly looks at them as a deal-breaker. They are not going to rescind the franchise tag... That's not the way the Steelers do business."
I tend to agree. The Steelers are fully aware of what is ahead after they watched Bell skip training camp and the preseason in 2017 because there was no monetary consequence for doing so. Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert have consistently expressed interest in finalizing a long-term deal with a guy - Bell - they feel has been a valuable asset to their team.
The only way I see the Steelers rescinding the tag, or basically saying they want nothing more to do with Bell, is if he refuses to come to grips with the fact that he will not make $17 M year (what he reportedly seeks) in the black and gold; if he decides to go completely off the deep end and alienate himself from the organization in such a way that his risk far outweighs any other gamble they could take. Think LeGarrette Blount walking out on the team or James Harrison sleeping through meetings.
Bell is not going to be able to build his brand or break the bank by asking for and getting money that top positional players that are much harder to find (receivers who can take the tops off of defenses, like teammate Antonio Brown, or shutdown cornerbacks who are a rare commodity). Not if the Steelers want to remain competitive by signing their draft picks. Not if the Steelers want to remain in the market of adding veteran free agent depth in the next couple of seasons. Not if the Steelers want to grab another Lombardi trophy.
The Steelers aren't really the ones in a bind, in this situation. They have the leverage and whether or not the honorable thing is done between the franchise and their number one running back really comes down to whether Bell sees beyond the fantasy. He can be the heralded veteran who is truly valued by this team, or not.