Le'Veon Bell‘s comment on Thursday that he feels like Pittsburgh treats him as a villain suggests that he might not be in Pittsburgh much longer. And if he’s approaching this season with an eye toward leaving Pittsburgh a year from now, he has a role model he knows well: Kirk Cousins.
Bell and Cousins were teammates at Michigan State, and Bell is now in the position Cousins was in a year ago: Franchised for the second year in a row, and seemingly not on the same page as his team about a long-term contract extension.
It could make sense, then, for Bell to follow in Cousins’ footsteps, sign the franchise tender this year, and hit unrestricted free agency next year. Like Cousins, Bell would benefit from the NFL rule that makes a third franchise tag so expensive as to be almost impossible: Washington was never going to put the franchise tag on Cousins this year, and Bell is even less likely to get the franchise tag next year. If Bell plays out this season in Pittsburgh on the one-year franchise salary of $14.56 million, he’ll become a true unrestricted free agent next year.
The big risk, of course, is that Bell could suffer a serious injury during the 2018 season. If he blows out his knee this year, the big payday he wants next year may not materialize.
But if Bell doesn’t feel wanted in Pittsburgh and doesn’t think the Steelers are willing to pay him the kind of money he deserves on a long-term deal, the best way to find out what he’s worth on the open market is to do exactly what Cousins did: Play out his rookie contract, sign the franchise tender twice, and then hit free agency. Bell wouldn’t get the kind of contract Cousins got because no running back is going to get a quarterback contract in today’s NFL. But Bell could re-set the market for running backs by hitting the market in a year.