The Steelers placed the franchise tag on running back Le’Veon Bell, but Bell has yet to sign his tender and did not report for any of the team’s offseason program. That includes this week’s mandatory minicamp, which for Bell was actually not mandatory because he’s not officially under contract.
Bell skipped the team’s workouts in part because he’s recovering from the groin surgery he had in March, but also because he wants a long-term contract. And the two sides now have exactly one month to keep talking, or else this thing could really drag out.
By tagging Bell, the Steelers have committed to paying him $12.12 million for this season. But by not signing his franchise tender, Bell is using what precious leverage he has to force the team into meeting his demands. The question now is how far both sides are willing to take this, and for how long.
The franchise tag rules only permit teams and players to negotiate toward a long-term deal until 4 p.m. ET on July 17, after which they would be prohibited from talking contract until after the season. Ed Bouchette, the longtime beat man for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said in a chat with readers this week that he did not think the two sides would get a deal done by that deadline. Franchise tag talks can be kind of unpredictable, so there’s no telling how the next month might play out. But if the deadline comes and goes without a deal, a number of options would be on the table.
- Bell could continue to hold out. Without a contract or a signed tender, Bell would be under no obligation to report for anything—training camp, preseason games, even the regular season. And there would be nothing the Steelers could do about it. While players can be fined up to $40,000 for each day of training camp missed, that wouldn’t apply to Bell, because, again, he wouldn’t be on the roster. He could also skip all of training camp without forgoing any potential salary until Week 1. According to the CBA, Bell could even hold out as long as the Tuesday after the 10th week of the regular season, at which point he’d be prohibited from playing at all in 2017.
- The Steelers could rescind the tag. The Panthers did this last year with Josh Norman, but yanking the tag would mean allowing Bell to become an unrestricted free agent, which means he’d be free to sign with another team and the Steelers would receive nothing in return except for a 2018 compensatory draft pick.
- The Steelers could simply wait Bell out. Whether Bell ultimately signs the tender or not, the Steelers still have a few cards to play. If he were to play on the tender, they’d get him for a full season before having to commit to anything long-term. If his skills were to suddenly erode or he were to get seriously injured, they’d be able to cut bait. But if he were to continue playing at a high level, the Steelers could easily reevaluate their next step after the season—including the possibility of an agreeable long-term deal. The Chiefs did this last year with safety Eric Berry, and in the end the two sides agreed to a contract in February.
- The Steelers could franchise Bell again next year. This would be not unlike what Washington did this year with quarterback Kirk Cousins and what the Rams did with cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Tagging Bell a second time would mean paying him 120 percent of this year’s tag figure ($14.54 million), which would mean a two-year commitment of $26.67 million, all fully guaranteed. That would be far more than the $18.25 million in fully guaranteed money the Bills gave LeSean McCoy two years ago, but slightly less than the $27.15 million in guarantees Leonard Fournette got for being drafted No. 4 overall this year by the Jaguars.
Would Bell be happy with options 3 or 4? The likely answer is no, because at age 25, he undoubtedly prefers not to go year-to-year to get his big payday. He also probably would rather have a larger commitment than Fournette’s, considering Fournette has yet to play a down of pro ball. Running backs have never been more easily replaceable than they are in today’s NFL, but Bell is a unique talent whose presence as an elusive runner and pass-catcher is integral to what has developed into a rather dangerous Steelers offense. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley told ESPN the Steelers have discussed the possibility of lightening his workload. Also, Ben Roethlisberger is 35 and has openly flirted with retirement, so the window to keep the Ben-Bell-Brown band together is starting to close.
There is one other thing to keep in mind: That July 17 deadline has a way of forcing two sides that otherwise might be far apart into finding common ground at the last minute. This was true two years ago for Justin Houston, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, and Stephen Gostkowski, and it was true last year for Von Miller, Justin Tucker, and Muhammad Wilkerson. Steelers president Art Rooney II is on record that he “would like to have on the team for a while.” If that’s true, he’s still got a few ways to make that happen.
Update: After publication, the NFL clarified that the negotiating window for the franchise tag will be open until July 17. This is because July 15 falls on a Saturday. This post has been changed in accordance with that clarification.