The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell are coming to a crossroads this offseason, and both parties know it.
Bell, who turns 26 a few weeks after the Super Bowl, was a free agent who played under the franchise tag this season, earning $12.1 million. It’s a tremendous salary for a running back, but it might not be sustainable for the Steelers to pay him close to that rate going forward.
And for Bell, who again is set to hit free agency this offseason, he’s not interested in being tagged for a second straight season. He told ESPN that “would definitely consider” sitting out the 2018 season if the Steelers took that course of action. As it was, Bell did not report to the Steelers until Sept. 1 this season as a reaction to his first tag.
“I'm not going to settle for anything,” Bell told ESPN this week. “I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I'm not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I'm not getting what I feel I'm valued at.”
The franchise tender earned Bell $12.1 million this season, which was the highest base salary (not accounting for bonus money) at the position in the NFL by nearly $6 million. His cap hit for the same amount was nearly $2 million more than the next highest-paid back.
If the Steelers opted to franchise him in 2018, it would incur a 120 percent kicker and a salary of $14.5 million. That might not be something the Steelers, who currently have more than $178 million allocated now to 39 players next season. The first figure is the fourth-most money on the books for next season, and the latter number is the second-fewest number of players under contract.
Translation: The Steelers have some considerable cap issues next season.
They certainly can do other things to alleviate that issue, such as restructuring Ben Roethlisberger’s contract (he’s currently at $23.2 million vs. the cap in what will be his age-36 season) or releasing a few veterans. But even with that, there might be work to do.
Bell does not currently count against the cap, so adding more than $14 million would cripple them quite a bit. But we still can envision the Steelers using the tag — not to sign him to an extension, which the team and he failed to reach this past offseason, but rather as a way of shackling Bell for a trade.
It would make sense for the Steelers to get the most out of Bell now and then let him walk if they believe his financial demands or another expensive one-year tender are just too unwieldy. Sure, there’s a very good reason for them to keep feeding the ball to Bell as they have — he’s one of the best, if not the best, backs of his generation. But they also could be getting the most out of him now before shipping him out before the law of diminishing returns catches up to him.
Bell was on pace for one of the higher workloads in recent NFL history before he sat out in Week 15 along with many other Steelers starters. As it was, his 406 touches were the second-most of any NFL player since 2009. And his 1,541 total touches are the most for any player through their first five seasons since Adrian Peterson.
Despite missing 18 games over that stretch because of injuries and suspensions, Bell has averaged 24.9 touches per game. If you throw in Bell’s final season at Michigan State, when he touched the ball a whopping 414 times in 13 games, his workload has been significant.
Our theory after talking to a few folks around the league: The Steelers will use him extensively in the playoffs, starting with Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and them ship him out. Another reason the Steelers might balk at giving him the long-term deal he wants is that Bell has previously been suspended for substance use, putting him at risk for further (and longer) suspensions.
The Steelers rode Le’Veon Bell hard in the team’s first two playoffs games last season, giving him the ball 59 times in the victories over the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. Bell might have received a similar workload in the AFC championship loss to the New England Patriots a year ago, too, had he not aggravated a knee injury that limited him to six carries, with four of them coming in the first seven minutes of the game.
What might Bell be worth in a trade? Not as much as his talent would suggest. Any team trading for him knows what he wants to earn — last offseason, Bell suggested that he should be paid as the top running back and receive a salary boost that pays him like a top-12 receiver, considering his rare pass-catching prowess.
That might drop his value to a Day 2 or Day 3 pick. But for the Steelers it could net them more now than it would letting him walk as a free agent this offseason and possibly earning a compensatory pick (likely a third-rounder) in 2019.
NFL teams generally consider the time value of draft picks when making trades, so a 2019 third-round pick (at the end of the round, no less) would be worth about a late second-rounder or early third-rounder this year. GM Kevin Colbert would then have to weigh what’s best; for an aging roster and a Super Bowl window that might be closing, he could decide it behooves the team to get the 2018 selection.
One of those picks could be used to select Bell’s replacement, as the Steelers don’t have a lot currently on the roster at running back beyond James Conner, who ended his rookie season on IR with an MCL injury. It’s also considered to be a good draft for RB talent, with several talented underclassmen already declaring early, so that certainly would make some sense. The Steelers have traded away their fourth- and sixth-round picks and have an extra fifth-rounder, via previous trades. They are not projected to receive any compensatory picks in 2018 either.
There also is a decent crop of free agent backs that could include Carlos Hyde, Dion Lewis (who played in college at Pitt), Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West, Jerick McKinnon, Jeremy Hill, Orleans Darkwa and others — all of whom will demand far less money on the open market.
Le’Veon Bells don’t grow on trees, and there would be a considerable risk to shipping him out when he still could have two or three productive seasons left. But the Steelers also might be too cap-stricken to hang on to him much longer, so it’s also thriftier — and possibly savvier, for the long term — move to let him go now.