Last year, the Steelers and running back Le'Veon Bell couldn’t come to terms on a long-term deal before the July 17 deadline for doing so. Now that the 2017 season has ended for the Steelers, the team has shown a renewed sense of urgency when it comes to getting Bell signed over the long haul.
Bell says the two sides already are closer than they were a year ago. This suggests that the Steelers have opted for the Antonio Brown approach, creating an artificial deadline of the start of the league year (or, more likely, the deadline for applying the franchise tag) for finalizing a multi-year contract.
The real question is whether Bell will comply with the latest attempt by the Steelers to impose rules and deadlines above and beyond the terms of the labor deal, pressuring players to operate on the team’s terms. The negotiations likely will entail another Pittsburgh standard operating procedure: The Steelers won’t include any fully-guaranteed money beyond the current year.
Thus, when Bell trades in the $14.52 million that he’d make under the franchise tag for 2018, what will he really get? Given that there’s no way the Steelers would tag him a third time, Bell will be sacrifice a clear shot at the open market in 2019, giving the Steelers essentially year-to-year control over this career. (A large signing bonus would likely ensure two or three years, minimum, given the cap consequences of cutting him.)
Last year, Bell held firm, refusing a long-term deal that he didn’t regard as good enough, exercising his right to boycott all offseason, training camp, and preseason activities, and eventually making $12.1 million for 2017. This year, will he do the same?
By leaking to the media his extreme tardiness for the final walk-through of the season, the Steelers may be trying to soften Bell’s expectations. That’s the same approach they apparently utilized with Brown a year ago.
Maybe the Steelers are telling Bell that they won’t apply the franchise tag. If so, he should call their bluff. If they tag him, he’ll be operating from a position of strength. If they don’t, he’ll be operating from an even greater position of strength, since there will be nothing the team can do to keep him away from the open market, where the highest bidder surely would pay Bell a lot more than the Steelers would.
So what should he want? Unless they won’t tag him, the starting point is $14.52 million for 2018, clearly. Beyond that, it’s whatever Bell decides represents fair value for the sacrifice of a chance to hit the market and cash in — recognizing that someone will surely pay a steep premium for the best running back in the NFL.
If they don’t tag him, his price should be whatever the market bears, possibly with a willingness to take less to stay in Pittsburgh than he could get elsewhere. There’s only one way to find out what that number is: By not applying the tag and letting Bell shop himself during the two-day tampering window. If the Steelers truly hope to strike a fair and appropriate deal with Bell, that’s what they would do.
And if they won’t do it this year, Bell should pounce on $14.52 million for 2018, and then find out in 2019 what someone else would be willing to pay.
Either way, Bell should refuse to do anything until the Steelers have to decide whether to tag him again. He proved last year that he was willing to push back against the team’s habit of dictating terms to its players. Bell shouldn’t hesitate to do it again.