Despite another offseason of platitudes from both sides about their desire to sign a long-term deal, the Pittsburgh Steelers have just one week left to come to terms with Le’Veon Bell on an extension before league rules will prevent any further negotiations in 2018. Facing a deadline of 4 p.m. ET on July 16, time is running out for fans hopeful of seeing Bell in the Black and Gold beyond this season.
While Bell seemingly remains optimistic, he might be in the minority in that regard, and little has been revealed this offseason to give Steeler Nation any indication that negotiations are progressing any better than they were at this same time last year. Reportedly demanding an average of between $14.5 million and $17 million a season, there can be little doubt an agreement will not be signed if Bell’s actual number really is closer to the high-end projections.
With the Steelers set to pay him $14.544 million under the terms of the franchise tag without an extension, it is just about conceivable to believe the front office could find a way to justify paying Bell as much as $15 million a year, but still rather unlikely. Enough has already been written about the merits of Bell’s suggestions he should be paid in line with the top wideouts in the league, but regardless of the opinion of outsiders, that is unquestionably what he believes.
Given his skills as a receiver, there is no question that Bell is an outlier at his position and is perhaps deserving of a bit more. However, the long-term career prospects of a heavily used running back cannot be ignored when contemplating a multi-year deal.
For Pittsburgh, a depressed market for running backs where the next highest paid player at the position is earning an average of just $8.25 million a season means agreeing to offer Bell closer to almost double that amount is always going to be a difficult pill to swallow. The front office might have given out their fair share of big deals over the years, but the Steelers have never been known as a team to completely reset the market at any position.
It is worth noting that New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley is currently projected to be the fourth-highest paid running back in the NFL, earning an average of almost $8 million a year when he finally signs his rookie deal. In fairness to Bell, it is absurd to consider Devonta Freeman the baseline for negotiations when a rookie is earning just $250,000 a year less than the market leader, but how high Pittsburgh is prepared to go remains to be seen.
Some observers will point out that absorbing a ground breaking deal for Bell would make balancing the salary cap somewhat challenging in 2019, but Kevin Colbert has faced stiffer challenges before. That being said, the cost of a third franchise tag projected to be over $30 million would be prohibitive and without an new deal, the Steelers star running back will almost certainly hit the open market next year.
Pittsburgh will not win in a bidding war, with teams like the New York Jets expected to have more than $85 million in cap space to play with and Bell should have little trouble finding someone willing to match his lofty wage demands. Fans may want to keep their fingers crossed for the next seven days, while preparing for the worst. Without a degree of compromise from Bell, it seems improbable a deal will be done, but that will not stop many within Steeler Nation wishing for a miracle come July 16.