Let’s assume that running back Le'Veon Bell doesn’t report to the Steelers and sign his franchise tender by next Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. ET. If/when that happens, the battle lines could be drawn for a CBA fight regarding the terms of a franchise tag that would be applied to Bell in 2019.
Here’s the basic question, as it possibly could unfold between the Steelers (and the NFL’s Management Council) and Bell (and the NFL Players Association): If Bell doesn’t play this year, would a franchise tag in 2019 carry the same value as the franchise tag in 2018, or would it count as a third franchise tag, qualifying Bell for the quarterback tender?
The relevant language comes from Article 10, Section 15(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement: “If any Franchise Player does not play in the NFL in a League Year, his Prior Team shall have the right to designate such player as a Franchise Player or a Transition Player the following League Year, if such designation is otherwise available to the Team, except that the applicable Tender must be made and any 120% Tender shall be measured from the Player’s Prior Year Salary.”
Some believe based on this language that the league would argue that, because Bell didn’t play under the second tag, the second tag would carry over to the next year. Some believe the NFLPA would argue that the plain language of the provision contains no such limitation and that a re-tag of Bell in 2019 would count as a third tag, qualifying him for the quarterback tender — regardless of whether he skips the entire 2018 season.
The difference between the two positions translates to a gap of more than $10 million between the potential tender amounts, with the 2018 tag at $14.54 million and the quarterback tender potentially in the range of $25 million (the quarterback tender was $23.189 million in 2018). Which would make the Steelers far less likely to use the franchise tag on Bell again in 2019, if it’s the higher amount.
If it’s the lower amount, the Steelers could re-tag Bell and then trade him. But if he doesn’t play in 2018, Section 15(a) also limits the team’s ability to use the exclusive version of the franchise tag, allowing a team to sign him to an offer sheet in return for a first-round and third-round draft pick. This would limit the maximum compensation the Steelers could get for Bell, which could in turn reduce his trade value.
And if the Steelers are able to trade Bell, the thinking is that he’d receive a lower financial package than he would receive if he could be signed without his new team giving up draft pick(s) or player(s) compensation. If the quarterback tender applies and, as a practical matter, Bell can’t be franchise tagged (and thus can’t be traded), Bell would hit the open market and get more than anyone would reasonably expect.
Case in point: Receiver Sammy Watkins hit the open market, and he received a contract that is in many respects better than the deal Odell Beckham Jr. signed to stay with the Giants. That’s the way to get paid huge money — land on the market on the first day of free agency, and sign with a team that can get the player without any compensation beyond the player’s contract.
The manner in which the Article 10, Section 15(a) is interpreted and applied will go a long way toward determining which franchise tender applies to Bell, if he doesn’t show up by next Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. ET.