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Misconceptions Surrounding Le’Veon Bell, Part Two: The Steelers Salary Cap Killer

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell have a unique relationship. With that said, the Steelers’ All-Pro running back is also extremely misunderstood.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the previous article, I probed into Le’Veon Bell’s perceived greed and his desire to be paid as the top RB and a No. 2 WR. Now I turn my sights to the perceived destruction of the team’s salary cap not only in 2018, but also future years. Kevin Colbert has been the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2000 and Vice President of Football and Business Administration, Omar Khan, was brought as Colbert’s right-hand man in 2001.

The salary cap is a winding, twisting minefield that not many human beings can navigate. The complexities are immense, but, year in and year out, the two navigate the waters with the best of them. So, where is the trust they know how to ensure that the Steelers do not put themselves into a major cap bind?

Without further ado, we’ll turn to the accusations swirling around Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers’ cap:

No. 1: Bell destroyed the Steelers’ cap space, and now Pitt cannot sign free agents to upgrade the team. It’s all his fault!

How does that crow taste? The Steelers were players in the free-agent market with quality signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett. Both are penciled in as starters and fill two glaring holes. Will they be Pro Bowl selections in 2018? Most likely not, but Pittsburgh doesn’t need them to be. The defense gave up 308 points last year, good enough for seventh best. The Steelers just needed upgrades compared to what they were staring at, not a complete overhaul — and in Bostic and Burnett, the Steelers have found quality upgrades which fit the bill. That reality soundly lays this argument to rest.

No. 2: OK, maybe Bell isn’t destroying the cap now, but he will decimate the Steelers’ cap down the road.

Armchair GMs and amateur capologists have been spreading this tale for the past year, ever since Bell was tagged for the first time. The Steelers’ biggest cap hit comes from Ben Roethlisberger, and no one knows if he is going to sign an extension, what that extension would look like, if he will retire, or if Pittsburgh will go out and be a player for a top-tier QB, a mid-tier QB or young gunslinger in the near future. No one has ever reported a full contract structure for a Bell contract, so how could anyone know it would be a burden in future years? The deal could be front-loaded like Jerick McKinnon’s or back-loaded like so many other NFL contracts. If the duo of Colbert and Khan were concerned about Bell killing the cap down the road, would they even be negotiating?

No 3: Restructures are negligent to the health of the cap down the road.

Pittsburgh has done four restructures so far in 2018. Not all that freed-up cap space went to paying Bell’s tag. These moves were necessities just to make the team cap compliant and to make cap room for offseason moves.

So, what were the cap implications according?

  • Stephon Tuitt: Tuitt’s restructure created $8.168 million in cap space while pushing $2 million per year into each of his remaining four years.
  • David DeCastro: DeCastro’s conversion freed up $6.79 while adding $1.7 million to each of the next three years.
  • Alejandro Villanueva: AV’s retooled contract produced a cap savings of $3.53 million and slid additional cap hits of $1.77 million into the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
  • Antonio Brown: AB’s restructure generated a cap savings of $9.72 million in 2018 while pushing $3.24 million into each of his next four years.

These moves created a total cap savings of $28.2 million in 2018, and kicked $8.71 million down the road for upcoming years. OK, blame Colbert for tagging Bell for $14.5 million for the additional cap hit in each of the next few years, but who do you blame for the remainder? As with any win or loss, the cap liabilities are always a team effort.

No. 4: Not placing the non-exclusive tag on Bell was a mistake. The Steelers could have traded with doormat Cleveland and received two first-rounders.

Let me put this to rest once and for all, no team is going to give up two first-rounders for a RB, nor for any position that is not a franchise QB. It is even highly debatable that a top-notch franchise QB would nab two high first-rounders.

First, this is not 1989, and big-time players are not traded for a zillion draft picks, let alone three first-rounders. Teams learned from the folly that was the Vikings when they were swindled into the Herschel Walker trade. To highlight this, 77-game starter LT Cordy Glenn was traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Cincinnati Bengals so that the Bills could move up nine spots to 12th overall in the 2018 draft. The two teams swapped first-rounders. Left tackle is viewed by many as the second-most-important position in the NFL. If the Bills could only move up nine spots, how was Pittsburgh going to move up 27 or 23 spots to make a deal with Cleveland? Knock the Browns all you want, but their GM is John Dorsey, not your weird Uncle Fred. Dorsey had been with former Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson almost exclusively since 1991 and learned a great deal under his tutelage.

Steelers fans realistically will never learn the exact contract figures that would tell the full story of where the sides were. If only partial details come out, fans will again jump to uninformed conclusions. GM Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan need to be trusted more in their handling of the salary cap, and fans need to trust their judgements regarding its manipulations and the ramifications of doing so.


In the third part of this series I will be discussing the off-field issues and past injuries and how the perceptions surrounding them are either wrong or misleading.

If you missed any parts of this series, you can read them below:
Part One: Greed and Loyalty