Despite some curious and confusing accounts this week regarding who knew what and when and why the Steelers would tip their hands regarding a legal position that could allow them to franchise-tag and trade running back Le'Veon Bell next year, the various choices and consequences seemingly have come into focus, once and for all.
Bell can show up by Tuesday and make up to $6 million in base salary for the balance of the year and head to free agency in March, or he can not show up and head to free agency in March. Either way, he’ll be a free agent in March.
At this point, then, the smart move would be to stay away.
If, as the Steelers reportedly would concede, Bell’s franchise tender in 2019 would be the average of the five highest-paid quarterbacks even if he doesn’t play at all in 2018, Bell should treat the balance of his forfeited pay as insurance of sorts on the large payout he’ll undoubtedly receive on the open market in 2019. Even if the Steelers apply the transition tag on Bell (if he doesn’t show up, the transition tender would be $14.54 million), the Steelers most likely wouldn’t match any offer sheet he signs with another team, due both to the dollars that will be involved and the manner in which the deal is structured. The Steelers won’t fully guarantee money beyond the first year of a veteran contract, which means that a two-year or three-year full guarantee at signing would be enough to scare them away from matching. (Besides, the fact that they have James Conner under contract for two more years at bargain-basement rates makes Bell a luxury the Steelers don’t need to afford.)
So the Jets or the Buccaneers or the Browns or some other team with the cash and cap space would put together an offer that would dwarf the value of the deal that Bell rejected in Pittsburgh, and he’d have extreme financial security through 2020 and possibly 2021.
What about the $14.54 million he’s losing this year? He’ll never earn that back, right? Technically, yes. But as a practical matter Bell arguably has extended his career by a full year by taking a full year off, reducing the wear and tear and allowing him to tear it up another year deeper into his 30s. Think of it as an advance on his eventual retirement. If he still plays for as many seasons as he would have played if he’d played this year, he’ll ultimately be in a better place financially, because the deal he signs with a new team in March 2019 will be much better than the deal he could have signed with the Steelers in July 2018. (And, trust me, the deal he signs in March 2019 will be much better than the deal he could have signed with the Steelers in July 2018.)
If Bell shows up, he would expose himself to up to seven games of injury risk, capped by ultra-intense postseason games, which would pay him peanuts in comparison and put him in the awkward position of choosing between assuming enhanced injury risk or packing it up and walking out in January.
So with more than $8.5 million already gone, Bell should give up the other $6 million and prepare for the many millions he’ll be getting in March, if as we all now know (and barring a switcheroo from the Steelers) he will hit the open market next year even if he doesn’t show up this year.
That’s where we are. It doesn’t matter how we got here (unless the Steelers and the NFL do indeed intend to eventually argue that Bell isn’t eligible for a quarterback-based franchise tender in 2019 if he doesn’t show up in 2018). Faced with showing up and making $6 million or staying away and preserving the ability to cash in next year, the smart play is to cash in next year.
Some may say that other teams will view Bell differently if he doesn’t show up at all. To that I’d say, “Hogwash.” He already made a business decision to skip 10 weeks and give up $8.55 million. At this point, the best business decision is to skip seven more weeks, give up the balance of the franchise tender, and wait for one or more of 31 teams to offer him something along the lines of $18 million per year with upwards of $40 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Which will happen. Great players rarely get to the open market unfettered. When they do, they get paid. A lot. Regardless of whether they made any past business decisions aimed at preserving their current and future earnings.