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Four lingering questions concerning Le’Veon Bell’s future

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With Le’Veon Bell’s contract saga having reached its conclusion, we begin to pick up the pieces.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Le’Veon Bell sought tirelessly to obtain a record-breaking, paradigm-shifting, and much-deserved long-term contract extension from the Pittsburgh Steelers, but to no avail. For the second year in a row, Bell will play out the season on the franchise tag—after that, he seems destined to chase greener pastures in free agency.

This is all fine. Under no circumstances should Bell feel compelled to accept an offer — a hometown discount, more accurately — that he believes is unbefitting of his multifarious skillset. He’s 26, coming off yet another All-Pro season, and still very much in the prime of what’s on pace to become a Hall of Fame-caliber career; he should bet on himself. Likewise, the Steelers have no obligation to fork over what would’ve been an unprecedented contract to a player who is, from strictly a positional standpoint , an undervalued and expendable commodity. Bell’s people and the Steelers’ front-office personnel have been negotiating (or at the very least spit-balling) in earnest for the past, I don’t know, 26 months or so, but the gulf between what Bell thought he was worth and what the Steelers were willing to pay proved too vast to traverse. With that, I have a few rhetorical questions:

So...what happened?

It’s important to note that, on the surface, Bell and the Steelers seemed to be a lot closer to getting a deal done this week than they did last season. Last summer, right against the zero-hour of the 4pm franchise tag deadline, the Steelers reportedly offered Bell a five-year, $60 contract, which he declined. This season, Pittsburgh put an even-more-lucrative five-year, $70 million on the table, which Bell likewise declined. If I had to guess, I’d say haggling over guarantees is what prevented this deal from getting done. NFL contracts are rarely guaranteed beyond the first two or three years, so it stands to reason that Bell would’ve wanted slightly more than the $30 million that he was guaranteed in the first two years of the Steelers’ reported offer. Speculating that the reported offer (forgive the heavy-handedness with these speculative modifiers, because we’re just going by what’s been reported) was set to be split right down the middle, it’s a debatably good decision by Bell to forgo that offer in favor of what is now essentially a $14.5 million player option — thereby betting on himself to cash in during free agency in 2019.

Free agency? So 2018 is it for Bell, then?

Yeah, I’d say so. However, the Steelers could go nuclear and make the unparalleled decision to tag Bell for a third consecutive year. The franchise tag probably isn’t a hyper-realistic option, as applying it to Bell would cost the Steelers somewhere in the ballpark of $20 million (tagging a player for three straight years forces a team to pay a player 144% of his previous year’s salary). The Steelers also have the option of deploying the transition tag, which would pay Bell slightly less than the franchise tag figure — but more than what the Steelers reportedly offered — and allow other teams to negotiate with him. Should another team sign Bell to an offer sheet, the Steelers would then have seven business days to match.

But pragmatically speaking, yeah, the Jets or Colts or someone will probably pony up the $40 million guaranteed or however much it costs to sign Bell long-term.

What are the short- and long-term ramifications of this whole...ordeal?

Well, we already know the short-term ramifications, because we bore witness to similar proceedings last offseason. Bell probably will refuse his camp invitation, instead using his off-time to stay in tremendous shape and play Fortnite or whatever. Bell’s coaches and some teammates will offer perfunctory Dur, yeah, he should probably be in camp remarks on the record. But if we broaden the scope a bit and look ahead to, say, early-September, the optics become a little more opaque. ESPN’s Adam Schefter indicated that Bell could sit out half of the regular season which, despite being summarily dismissed by various members of the Steelers’ sycophantic media contingent, is a thing that could happen, though he would forfeit eight game checks (amounting to more than $7 million) in the process. But not even a full workday after Schefter made this statement, Bell Tweeted the following:

This leads me to believe that Bell will report by Week 1 so as to ensure he does indeed have his “best season to date.” But, I mean, who knows? Before Bell makes any firm decisions about his immediate future, I think he needs to really consider if surrendering half a year’s pay is worth getting the deal he wants. Correspondingly, he needs to determine if having “his best season to date” is worth tacking another 400 or so touches onto his odometer.

The Steelers have some decisions to make, too. If they sense a lengthy holdout, should they alter the game plan to accentuate the strengths of the passing attack, or should they permit another back (or backs) to assume Bell’s role in the offense? If they choose the latter, which back (or backs) is their best receiver? Their best blocker? Can anyone on this roster emulate the rushing style that made the Steelers even consider making Bell the richest backfield commodity in league history?

Alternatively, if Bell indicates he will report, should the Steelers ride Bell to death, or should they cut back on his touches in order to get a better look at James Conner or Jaylen Samuels? What impact is Bell’s looming departure going to have on Pittsburgh’s 2019 offseason plans? Does drafting a running back then become a top priority? Will they revert to the backfield-by-committee approach that was so effective during the Jonathan Dwyer-Chris Rainey years (lol j/k).

And these are just a few of the team-building concerns. Is this whole thing going to precipitate any infighting or contentiousness in Pittsburgh’s locker room (because God knows there was controversy aplenty last season)? There are a lot of directions in which this whole thing can go, so the next eight or nine months are certain to be imbued with intrigue.

Predictions?

Same as he did last season, Bell will skip training camp and the preseason. He’ll report a few days prior to Pittsburgh’s opening game in Cleveland. The Steelers tend to be slow-starters, which I think could be exacerbated by Bell’s camp absence, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to buoy any fantasy football victories during the first couple of weeks. Bell will probably have a very, very great season, perhaps even a career-best season. I think 1,800 all-purpose yards and a dozen touchdowns on ~400 touches is a reasonably “safe” prediction. He’ll garner some sort of accolade, probably a Pro Bowl nod and maybe an All-Pro nomination.

When the 2018-19 season concludes, Bell and the Steelers will strike up some good-faith, but fleeting dialogue (the aforementioned nuclear tag options will not be in play). But once those talks fall through, he’ll hit free agency, at which point he’ll get the bag he’s been relentlessly seeking.

Then, the Steelers will pick up the pieces of move on. They’ll evaluate the performances by Conner, Samuels, Stevan Ridley or whichever other random back is tasked with handling the ball in 2018 and make personnel decisions accordingly. If none of the current crop checks out, they’ll spend a high draft pick on a back, or they’ll sign one in free agency. Bell will return to Heinz Field as a member of another franchise, probably the Colts, Bucs, or Jets, but possibly the Raiders, Patriots, or Seahawks. Most of the stadium will boo him, the same as it’s done to erstwhile Steeler Mike Wallace in each of his return trips to Pittsburgh, who departed the Steelers in 2013 under similar circumstances.