As expected, the deadline for the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell to reach an agreement on a long-term deal came and went Monday, and the superstar running back will earn $14.5 million in 2018 while playing under the franchise tag for the second year in a row.
While that aforementioned outcome was no surprise, the Steelers’ final offer of five years and $70 million, as reported by NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, left many totally shocked that the decorated back, who will be 27 years old next February 18, could leave so much money on the table at this stage of his career.
Whether you agree or not with Bell’s salary demands, this much is clear — the Steelers certainly value his skill-set and what he means to the offense, and to a larger extent, the team’s prospects for future championship success.
For all the talk about the shelf-life of your average NFL running back — once dominant running back, DeMarco Murray, just retired at the age of 30— Pittsburgh was willing to pay Bell huge money extending into his early 30s.
When you understand the Steelers’ recent history with keeping their superstars around through their high-end productive years — as well as their long-term history of knowing when it’s time to bid them adieu — they clearly think Bell will have enough in the tank for a long-term deal to make sense.
Is that a gamble? Sure it is, but you can pretty much say that about any position on the football field.
It’s true that running backs are notorious for wearing out sooner rather than later, but Bell is a unique talent with a unique skill-set, and he will not be replaced very easily.
The Steelers clearly recognize this.
The Steelers aren’t stupid when it comes to these things. If ever there was an organization with a reputation for standing its ground in negotiations, it’s the one headed by the Rooney family. So the smart money says to trust them.
There’s resentment among a certain segment of the fan base for Bell earning even the $12 million he did in 2017 under the initial franchise tag. But as I’ve said before, the Steelers could very easily have allowed him to enter free agency after his rookie contract expired. Instead, they will pay him more than $26 million in guaranteed money when all is said and done.
And regardless of what everyone is assuming at this stage of the game, all may not have been said and done with regard to Bell remaining a Steeler beyond this season.
Unless Bell really does something to anger his bosses this year, I can’t see them walking away without putting up a fight next spring, either before or during unrestricted free agency. You can forget about a third franchise tag — that would earn Bell more than $20 million next year. But what about a non-exclusive tag? By some accounts — and it’s always hard to get a firm grasp on such a complicated system — the non-exclusive tag means Bell would be free to shop his services to other teams, and the Steelers would have the right to match any offer. If they decide not to match it, they’d be awarded two first-round draft picks.
Is Bell worth two first-round picks? At this stage of his career, how can you say he isn’t? But if it’s deemed too high a price by other teams, the Steelers would pay Bell more than $17 million in guaranteed money in 2019.
With the window to compete for a Super Bowl likely open for only a few more years, would the Steelers consider paying Bell an additional $3 million next year before finally allowing him to walk in 2020?
Speaking of 2020, what are the chances Bell softens a bit by then, considering he’d have earned $43 million in guaranteed money under that scenario?
If Bell is still a productive back into his late-20’s, I can see a scenario in which the organization tries to keep him around with a final contract offer, an offer that may not be top-rate, but good enough to convince him to retire a Steeler and truly cement his legacy in Pittsburgh.
It may seem far-fetched at this point but, again, the Steelers threw a lot of numbers at Bell, and it’s highly doubtful they did so as a public relations stunt, thinking he would never agree to those numbers.
The Steelers clearly want Le’Veon Bell to stick around for many years, and I wouldn’t close the door on that ultimately becoming a reality.