With so many TV talking heads, writers and fans arguing over whether the Steelers should give Le’Veon Bell a new deal at an average of $8 million or $10 million or $12 or $15 million or “pay him whatever he wants”, I thought it might be time to explain the hold up on getting this deal finalized. It is not and never has been about the average per year. It’s about the total guaranteed money and the total cash flow in the first three years of the deal.
The Steelers do not guarantee anything beyond the signing bonus, even in large deals with superstar players.
For instance, the deal the club completed with Antonio Brown in February included a 19 million dollar signing bonus. That is the only part of the contract that was fully guaranteed. Structuring contracts in this way gives the organization flexibility in later years of contracts to release the player should they be faced with having to do so and ties up less cash due to the CBA requirement that all full guarantees be placed in escrow on the day of signing, even if they are to be paid at a later date.
The common structure of NFL deals after a player has been given the franchise tag is fully guaranteed dollars equal to the franchise tag being placed on said player twice. For Bell that equates to $26.664 Million. That money is typically paid out over the first two years, with some exceptions.
What the Steelers have done instead is pay a signing bonus and insert large roster bonuses in years two & three into deals that are payable if the player is still on the roster the 5th day of the league year (4 days after free agency begins). That player’s salary for the upcoming season then becomes guaranteed as a practical matter because the Steelers aren’t going to cut a check to Antonio Brown for $6,000,000 in March and then release him later to avoid paying his $7,875,000 salary.
Be assured that Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, is demanding that Bell be given that full guarantee the day that he signs. As a practical matter, Bell could get even more fully guaranteed on the open market. Some NFL teams will meet demands like these. The Steelers will not.
The risk Bell runs in not signing the Steelers best offer this year is career ending injury during a one year deal and/or next year being pushed off a Steelers roster that is primed to compete for a championship onto a poor team that is so desperate to improve that they are willing to pay Bell whatever he wants.
But, we also have to look at it from Bell’s perspective. He only has the next five years or so to make as much money as he can. In five years he’ll be 29 and staring at the beginning of the historical decline for skill position players.
If he’s got good advisers around him, he can make the money he makes on this deal last the rest of his life.
My instinct is that Bell and his agent have decided that there is no down side to playing under the tag this year should he and the Steelers not come to terms on a long-term deal.
• If he plays this year for $12.12M, finishes the season healthy enough to play in 2018 and next year he gets franchised again at $14.554M, that’s $26.664M over two years.
• If the Steelers refuse to franchise him next year, he’ll get even more total compensation on the first year of a new deal he receives on the open market than he would from the franchise tag.
• If the Steelers do franchise him in 2018 and he gets a new deal from them next year, with the signing bonus and first year salary from that deal, he could approach the almost $34M in cash earnings that AB will get in the first two years of his deal.
It’s a riskier approach, but there is a lot of upside in 2018.
By now, I think you know that I’m becoming pessimistic that the deal gets done. Still hopeful though. I’m probably 30/70 that it gets done at this point.
The question to me now is, does he hold out into training camp should the Steelers and his agent not be able to come to terms by 4 PM on Monday? My instinct is that he will report on time regardless. He seems to be alright with playing on the franchise tag this year, based upon his comments since being given the franchise tag designation.
However, when you look at this situation historically, others have held out and gotten an important concession from the team that placed the tag on them: a legally binding promise not to use the franchise or transition tag on them again the next year.
The thing is, the Steelers refuse to negotiate with anyone who is holding out from training camp and is under contract. Bell is not under contract, but has a generous offer for 2017 that he has yet to sign. Will the Steelers refuse to negotiate with Bell if he does not report? In order to report, he has to be under contract, or sign the 1 year franchise tender. Will this create a Catch-22?
The next few weeks could be very interesting for Le’Veon Bell.