Le’Veon Bell’s 4 p.m. deadline to report to the Steelers came and went, which means Bell cannot play at all during the 2018 season. It also means Bell has forfeited the entirety of the $14.54 million salary he was scheduled to make on the franchise tag, plus a reported $200,000 more in benefits. He had already given up $8.55 million in salary by having avoided the Steelers during the season’s first 10 weeks. Now what? Glad you asked.
How does this affect the Steelers?
For the Steelers, nothing changes, at least for this year. They’ve played the entire season with James Conner serving as Bell’s dual-threat replacement, and they haven’t missed a beat. Conner’s production through nine games is comparable to Bell’s, and the Steelers are 6-2-1 and riding a five-game winning streak. The Steelers also get to save that $14.54 million on their salary cap. I’m not sure anyone outside of the most homerific Pittsburgh fan—Conner was a hometown college star at Pitt who has also survived cancer—could have foreseen this. The Steelers, however, will certainly take it—especially with Conner on a rookie contract that pays him just $578,000 this year, with two years to go. Conner is also 23 years old. Bell will turn 27 in February.
What about for Bell?
This is the part that’s going to be fascinating. A big part of the reason the Steelers tagged him in 2017 and again this season is because of how replaceable running backs have become in recent years. The league increasingly emphasizes the passing game, the rookie-wage scale has driven down costs at the position, there’s a general efficiency teams have found by using multiple backs, and most of the league’s elite backs haven’t yet reached next-contract status in their careers. The Rams’ Todd Gurley is one of only two backs in the top 10 in rushing yards to be playing on a veteran contract. The other is Washington’s Adrian Peterson, who signed for the veteran minimum because he was still on the street in mid-August. The Steelers drafted Conner in the 2017 third round. The season Conner is having doesn’t seem to help Bell’s cause much, since teams are more likely to assume they can find a cheaper option in the draft on a cost-controlled contract. There was never much Bell was going to be able to do to get the Steelers to budge anyway.
After a deadline that passed in mid-July, the tag rules prohibited the two sides from bargaining toward a long-term deal until after the season. The Steelers could have offered more than the stipulated tag figure for this year, but they were never going to do that—why would they? They can’t talk again until after the season. But there’s still a hand for the Steelers to play here, too.
They can franchise him again, but a loophole in the CBA would mean they’d have to pay him $25 million if they did that, which isn’t likely. They also could put the transition tag on him for next year, which is an option that Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported has been a “focus” for the Steelers.
What would that entail?
Under the transition tag, Bell would be paid anywhere from $9.5 million to $14.5 million, with an arbitrator determining the exact amount. Bell could field offers from other teams if he’s transitioned, but the Steelers would have the right to match any offer. The Steelers could also use the tag to try to trade Bell, to get some kind of draft-pick compensation. The downside for the Steelers is if Bell is given the transition tag and the Steelers don’t rescind it by the time he signs elsewhere, his departure would not count toward their compensatory draft-pick formula. But if they don’t tag him and he’s signed away as a free agent, they would get to include him in their comp pick formula.
If Bell hasn’t been able to bargain since July, why did he hold out?
One reason was to get the Steelers to see how rare and valuable his skills are as a pass catcher, runner, and pass blocker. Conner has (surprisingly) ruined that for him. But the biggest thing, given Bell’s age and the wear and tear he took by averaging 351 touches for four of the five seasons in which he did not sustain a serious injury, was to preserve his body. Teams generally prefer younger backs because (in addition to their lower cost) the position exacts a harsh physical toll: ESPN published some data last year that showed running backs’ production tends to decline precipitously once they reach age 28. The Steelers knew this, which is why they went year-to-year with Bell by tagging him twice (for a total amount of $26.7 million fully guaranteed) once his rookie deal expired. But had Bell played this season on the tag, he’d have been six years into a career at a debilitating position without having had a chance to ever bargain for what he’s worth.
What had he turned down before the July deadline?
NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported five years, $70 million, including more than $30 million in the first two years. The next day, Rapoport fleshed out some additional details: The only full guarantee was a $10 million signing bonus, and there were rolling guarantees adding up to $33 million by Year 2, and $45 million by Year 3. That’s similar to what Gurley got, in that it was year to year in terms of guarantees. But it was $11.5 million less than the full guarantee Gurley got at signing about a week later.
But that $14.5 million tag figure is a lot of money.
It is! But Bell figures he can get more in the offseason, from some other team. Back in July, a few days after Bell’s tag deadline came and went, Gurley and the Rams agreed to a deal that re-set the running back market at $14.375 million in average annual value, $34.5 million in full guarantees by next March (the start of the deal’s second season), and $45 million by March 2020. That’s a lot more money, coupled with job security beyond a single year.
One other thing: There are only six weeks left in the regular season, which is when players get paid their game checks. The Steelers could make a deep playoff run, which could last for up to four more games, for which Bell would only receive a standard playoff bonus for each successive week. His interest is in preserving his body, and he clearly feels the best way to do that is to sit the year.
What’s Bell going to get from teams next season?
Tough to say. He’s likely going to want Gurley-type money, if not more. But everything depends on the structure, and Gurley’s allows the Rams to keep his rights until 2023, which creates the risk of Gurley outplaying those terms.
Will teams want to pay Bell what he’s asking, given all those factors you mentioned?
Teams are going to be willing to spend this offseason. Per overthecap.com, 11 teams are estimated to have more than $50 million in 2019 cap space. Most of the league has been hoarding cap resources—23 teams with more than $20 million available—but those teams will have to part with that cash sooner or later because the collective bargaining agreement mandates that teams spend 89 percent of the total cap from 2017 through 2020. It’s possible to see, say, the Jets bucking up to get Sam Darnold a versatile, three-down back like Bell as a nice complementary piece. Remember: Free agency takes place more than a month before the draft. It’s worth wondering, given Team Bell’s confident approach here, whether Bell already has some kind of handshake deal in place with another team. That would be against the rules (wink wink), but it would hardly be unprecedented.
Update (8:58 p.m.): Great point here by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.
Doesn’t Bell also view himself as a positionless player?
He does. But even as the league keeps transitioning toward positionless players on both sides of the ball, its pay scale remains stuck in paying according to position. Bell also lined up in the slot or out wide on just 12.9 percent of his 2017 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Has anyone skipped a season before?
Yup, though it hasn’t happened in a while. Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert skipped the 1997 season when Washington franchised him; he eventually forced a trade to the Panthers, who gave him a long-term deal. And defensive end Dan Williams did it the following year in the same situation with the Chiefs. The following February, Williams leveraged that into a lucrative deal. It can work. The pie is much bigger now—Gilbert and Williams walked away from far less than Bell did—but that’s true for management, too.