With the 2018 season complete and the start of the new league year still five weeks away, the national media will spend much of that time speculating about things that will never happen this offseason. Trade rumors and projected free agent destinations for a large number of players who will ultimately never hit the open market will fill the headlines, all backed up by anonymous sources and insider information.
As one of the more desirable potential free agents this offseason, it should be expected that Le’Veon Bell will inspire more column inches than most in the coming few weeks. Likely to be connected to every team with salary cap space to spare regardless of their needs, it will be hard to separate the fact from fiction surrounding Bell.
With that in mind, both Adam Schefter of ESPN and Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported on Sunday that the Pittsburgh Steelers are thinking about using the transition tag on Bell ahead of the March 5 deadline. As per Schefter citing “a league source”.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers are still considering using their transition tag on Le’Veon Bell, which would give them the right to match any offer sheet the free-agent-to-be signs with any other team, a league source told ESPN.”
“Pittsburgh’s decision depends on how much another team would value Bell and whether the Steelers would be willing to match the offer sheet.”
“The Steelers were advised by the NFL Management Council that they can utilize another tag on the running back in 2019, sources said, and the transition tag remains a quite likely scenario. That would be the precursor to an eventual trade, with the Jets and Eagles potential landing landing spots.”
In reality, the move seems to make little sense for the Steelers.
Under the terms of the transition tag, Pittsburgh would have the right of first refusal against any contract offered to Bell, but it would offer them no compensation should he sign elsewhere. Similar to the franchise tag, it would come with a designated one-year contract initially, a figure that would appear to be $9.5 million based on the terms of the CBA, but one that Bell’s agent may possibly be able to argue should be worth $14.5 million.
Regardless of what the transition tag number ends up being, the entire amount would be counted against the Steelers salary cap in 2019 from the moment it is applied, remaining there until Bell signed a long term contract with Pittsburgh or another team. Should that team not be the Steelers, not only would they not get any compensation in 2019, they would also be ineligible to receive a compensatory draft pick in 2020.
The expectation that Pittsburgh would tag-and-trade Bell, as Canfora is suggesting, appears to have very little credibility. Any contract that the running back agrees to is likely to have a significant signing bonus attached to it, a figure the Steelers would have to eat as dead money should they match the deal and then try and trade him. Given the limited amount of salary cap space Pittsburgh has to work with this offseason and the abundance of space others have, it would be very easy to create a contract that made it virtually impossible for the Steelers to attempt such a thing.
It is difficult to believe that any NFL team would be prepared to offer Bell a lucrative free agent contract and then also be willing to give up draft picks on top to still get him. The running back would be equally crazy to sign a contract that Pittsburgh could easily match when it would give the Steelers the power to decide where he goes.
The decision to transition tag Bell is fraught with issues the front would be wise to avoid. Not only would they have to contend with a near certain arbitration hearing between the NFL and the NFLPA over the value of the tag, they would lose valuable salary cap space at a time when they should be trying to re-sign their own impending free agents. If Bell’s negotiations with prospective new teams drags on, this shortfall could carry over into the start of free agency. Not to mention the animosity that is likely to ensue from Bell and his agent throughout the ordeal.
Should the market not meet the offer the Steelers made in 2018, Pittsburgh would unquestionably be able to secure the player they wanted all along at a discount, but the embarrassment for Bell would be obvious. Given previous suggestions he would retire if he did not get paid what he felt he was worth, it would not be a surprise to see Bell reluctant to rush back into training with teammates who openly criticized him less than a year ago.
Talent aside, it is hard to imagine that bringing Bell back into the fold will improve a locker room fraught with drama over the past few seasons. Using the transition tag likely only draws out Bell’s imminent departure at this point. The only reasonable course left for the front office is to let him leave peacefully, allowing everyone to retain what is left of their dignity.