Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sits on the precipice that only one other NFL player has done: sit out an entire NFL season over being franchise tagged. While not unheard of for players to sit out parts of the season over a contract dispute, only former Carolina Panthers defensive end Sean Gilbert sat out an entire season.
Bell has played the past five seasons with the Steelers and amassed three Pro Bowl invites during that span. During his stint, he has also sustained a myriad of injuries to go along with two suspensions for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. In March 2017, the Steelers could not work out a contract with Bell and placed the franchise tag on their star running back. After a successful 2017 campaign, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert was unphased by Bell’s past and reportedly offered Bell a long-term contract for five years and $70 million dollars . Bell again balked at a long-term deal reportedly due to the inadequate amount of guaranteed money compared to other high paid running backs in the league.
The 26-year-old running back only had three choices: sit out the entire 2018 season, sign his franchise tender or report to Pittsburgh and sign his franchise tag after the season had started. Bell has elected to bypass $855,000 per week and skipped all the season and reports have him sitting out the rest of the season.
Rewind to 1996 when Gilbert was traded to the Washington Redskins from the St. Louis Rams before the final year of his rookie deal. After a solid season that saw Gilbert being an alternate to the Pro Bowl, contract negotiations with the Redskins broke down and the franchise tag was placed on Gilbert. Instead of playing on the one year $3.4 million offer, Gilbert sat out the entire 1997 season. Like Bell, Gilbert was seen as a pariah in Washington.
After the 1997 season, the defensive tackle franchise tag was again placed on Gilbert. The franchise tag rules were different when compared to the current franchise tag that is outlined in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The tag was worth $2.97 million which was the average of the five highest paid defensive tackles.
Gilbert’s decision ultimately paid off as the Carolina Panthers traded two first round picks for him. The seven-year contract worth $45.6 million contract was the richest to ever be signed by a defensive player and dwarfed the five years $22.5 million deal he was seeking from the Redskins.
Gilbert said, “Not doing the work of two and a half men. I said, ‘I’m a man, and the decision I’m making, I can live with.’ And I took the chance to never play again. I was ostracized from that point. But guess what? I was still running down running backs, making plays.” His quote is similar to ones Bell has talked about while doing the work of a wide receiver and running back.
Time is winding down for Bell to sign the franchise tag or sit out the rest of the 2018 season. If media reports turn out to be accurate, Bell would follow in Gilbert’s footsteps becoming the second player in NFL history to sit out an entire NFL season due to the frustration of the franchise tag. If Bell sits, he would bank on finding a lucrative market as Gilbert did two decades ago. In 2019, will the Steelers let Bell test the free agent market for the first time in his career? Or will Colbert place a (debatable) third franchise tag ($23-25 million) or the transition tag ($14.5 million) on Bell or even a long-term deal?