They say the NFL is a deadline-driven business. One of the most consequential deadlines in recent years arrives in roughly 48 hours.
If the Steelers and running back Le'Veon Bell fail to agree to terms on a long-term deal by Monday at 4:00 p.m. ET, the veteran tailback almost certainly will become an unrestricted free agent in eight months.
Absent a multi-year contract, Bell (who currently is unsigned) can sign only a one-year deal through the end of the regular season. By then, Bell likely will be inclined to let it ride, forcing the Steelers to choose between tagging him a third time (and paying him the quarterback franchise tender of roughly $25 million for 2019) or finally letting the open market determine his value.
There have been accounts and reports of progress, but at this point the Steelers either will make him an offer he can’t refuse or make him an offer he does refuse, content in the knowledge that he’ll make $14.52 million this year to go with last year’s $12.1 million salary before getting whatever he can in free agency. The challenge continues to be placing a value on a long-term deal with $14.52 million as the clear starting point for 2018 and nothing at all being clear after that.
The Steelers could take the position that they’ll use the transition tender next year, giving them a right to match any offer sheet Bell signs in exchange for a 20-percent increase over this year’s tender ($17.42 million). That would make the two-year value nearly $32 million.
But with the Steelers having their own set of rules regarding player contracts — including most importantly in Bell’s case no fully-guaranteed payments beyond the current year — it may not be easy to ensure Bell that he’ll get at least $32 million if he signs a long-term deal. Even then, it may take more than that to get him to give up his shot at whatever some other team may be willing to pay in order to not only help win games but also assist with ticket sales and the generation of buzz.
Ultimately, Bell needs to ask himself this question: What will it take to get me to trade in $14.52 million in hand plus a chance to strike it as rich as possible in March? If the Steelers aren’t willing to make that kind of an offer within the next 48 hours, the clock then will start ticking toward his potential exit from Pittsburgh.