Since the Steelers season came to a surprising and disappointing end last Sunday against Jacksonville, there has been plenty of talk about how the Steelers should handle the contract situation of Le’Veon Bell. A significant portion of the fanbase was in Le’Veon’s corner and believed he deserved to be paid whatever he wanted on a long-term deal until an article by Ed Bouchette dropped in the Post-Gazette last week. Bouchette’s article detailed how Bell was late for practices, walk-throughs and games on multiple occasions, including showing up to the Saturday walk-through before the Jaguars game with just five minutes remaining. Bouchette also reported that Bell showed up later than Mike Tomlin’s required two hours before kickoff for the playoff game against Jacksonville. Mike Decourcy of The Sporting News also chimed in this week, reiterating his stance from last season that the Steelers should let Le’Veon Bell go in free agency.
While there has been plenty of discussion about what the Steelers should do on Twitter, message boards, and comments sections, there also seems to be some confusion in the fanbase and local media about what realistic options the Steelers possess moving forward. Le’Veon Bell played the 2017 season on the Franchise Tag. This entitled him to a $12.12 million one-year salary. Given that he is not under contract for 2018, this leaves the Steelers with 3 options: sign Bell to a long-term contract, place a tag on Bell for another one-year contract, or let Bell walk in Free Agency.
Now that the 2017 season is over, the Steelers can begin to work on contracts for the 2018 season. According to estimates by OverTheCap.com, the Steelers currently have about $2.9 million in available cap space for the 2018 season. There will also be about $4 million in carry-overs from 2017, but the Steelers have spent most of that already on reserve/futures contracts to build up their offseason roster. Obviously, some creative salary cap maneuvering will need to take place in order to accomodate Bell – either on a tag or a contract. The Steelers believed they had negotiated in good faith with Bell last offseason and even thought they had a deal at the deadline. According to reports, the deal amounted to a 5-year contract that would have paid him $30 million in the first two years and $42 million in the first three. However, Bell struck down this agreement and opted to play the 2017 season on the Franchise Tag. The Steelers will likely try to negotiate with Bell once again this offseason, but as we saw last year, Bell is willing to strike down even a contract offer that would have been the highest ever for the first three years of a deal if the overall numbers do not suit his asking price.
If the Steelers are not able to come to an agreement with Bell on a long-term deal by March 6 and want him on the roster in 2018, they would have to place a tag on him. There are three different tags at their disposal. All three would pay Bell the same $14.544 million salary (a 20% raise over his 2017 salary), but there are important differences between each. The Exclusive Franchise Tag would give only the Steelers rights to have Le’Veon Bell play for them in 2018. This was the tag the Steelers used in 2017 where Bell was not allowed to negotiate with other teams and could either play for the Steelers on the one-year deal or sit out the season. The second option is the Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag. With this designation, Bell would have the opportunity to negotiate a long-term contract with other teams. If he reached an agreement with another team, the Steelers would have the option to match that contract offer, at which point the Steelers would have Bell signed long-term under those same contract stipulations. If Bell agreed to a contract offer from another team and the Steelers did not match that offer, the Steelers would receive two first round picks in compensation from that team. Finally, the Steelers could place the Transition Tag on Bell. The Transition Tag would allow Bell to negotiate with other teams, just like the Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag. However, if Bell received the Transition Tag then agreed to contract terms with another team, the Steelers would not have the opportunity to match that contract offer and would receive no draft pick compensation in return.
Let Bell Walk in Free Agency
This option seemed somewhat unfathomable to most Steelers fans a few weeks ago. But after the early playoff exit and reports of Bell’s tardiness, the sentiment of the fanbase has begun to turn against the star running back. If the Steelers are unable to come to an agreement on a long-term deal with Bell, they could opt not to place any kind of tag on him and simply let him become a free agent. Given the size of the contract that Bell is likely to sign on the free agent market, the Steelers would probably receive a very high compensatory draft pick in the 2019 draft. The compensatory draft pick formula is not known to the public but the Steelers received a third round pick when Mike Wallace left and signed a 5-year $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins in 2013. Given Bell’s request for a $15 million per year deal, it seems likely the Steelers would receive a third round compensatory pick in the 2019 Draft if Bell left in 2018. If the Steelers choose to let Bell walk, they would obviously be in the market for a running back early in the 2018 Draft.
Can the Steelers Trade Bell?
Given that the trade deadline has already passed for the 2017 season and that Le’Veon Bell is not under contract for the 2018 season, the Steelers can not currently trade him. In order to trade Bell, they would have to come to some kind of contract agreement with him (either a long-term deal or a franchise tag) first. It would be ill-advised for the Steelers to sign Bell to a long-term deal and then trade him. While these “sign-and-trade” agreements are popular in other sports, they would not work in the NFL. If the Steelers signed Bell to a long-term deal and then traded him, the Steelers would be responsible for all of his signing bonus money and it would all count as dead money against the Salary Cap. Players are permitted to be traded after they have received the Franchise Tag. Most recently, this happened when New England placed a Franchise Tag on backup QB Matt Cassel then traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs. However, it is worth noting that Bell would have to sign his Franchise Tag before the Steelers would be able to trade him, which is something that did not happen last year until after the conclusion of Training Camp. In both respects, trading Le’Veon Bell would be an incredibly difficult proposition.
In conclusion, the Steelers will have to make a number of salary cap moves in the coming weeks to even hope to accomodate Le’Veon Bell on the roster (whether it be under a long-term contract or a franchise tag). Given the way contract negotiations ended last year and how Bell skipped training camp then was repeatedly tardy throughout the season, it is hard to imagine negotiations going more favorably this offseason. After thorough discussion, we here at Steel City Blitz believe the most prudent course of action to be using the Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag on Bell, which would enable him to negotiate with other teams and potentially sign the long-term deal he is looking for while also returning two first round picks to the Steelers if he signs elsewhere. If he does not sign elsewhere, the Steelers will once again have the services of the most versatile running back in the league in 2018. Even though he did not play in Week 17 against the Browns, Bell was just 36 yards shy of leading the league in rushing and 147 yards shy of leading the league in yards from scrimmage. Bell accounted for nearly a third of the Steelers total offensive yards in 2017 and he plays a significant role in both the running and passing games. There are justifiable cases to be made both for and against retaining Le’Veon Bell’s services in 2018, and the moves the Steelers make over the next few weeks to address their limited cap space will be a key indicator of how they plan to handle Bell’s contract moving forward.