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How the Steelers could have had a first-round draft pick in 2020 instead of a third

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Although a very unlikely scenario, the Steelers could have taken the chance to get two first-round picks for Le’Veon Bell in 2018.

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Imagine this scenario: The Pittsburgh Steelers draft Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL draft without giving up their 20th overall pick or their second round pick. The Steelers also trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick with the Miami Dolphins yet still have a first-round pick in the 2020 draft. The Steelers would have also kept their third-round draft pick for this year in the Bush trade, but would have ultimately lost out on their projected third-round compensatory draft pick this year.

Does this sound completely crazy? Sure. But if the Steelers had included three little letters on a franchise tag in 2018, this scenario could have played out.

It’s a longshot. Teams may have not been interested. But because of the way the Steelers chose to use the franchise tag the second season on Le’Veon Bell, we will never know. What were the three little letters they did not include? Simply the word “non” in front of the word “exclusive.”

If the Steelers had decided after one season of Le’Veon Bell playing under the exclusive franchise tag that they would allow him to seek a deal under the non-exclusive version, who knows if anyone would have been interested. We all know Bell did not get nearly the contract he had hoped or was reportedly offered by the Steelers in either season of his negotiations. Part of Bell’s issue was teams may have been skeptical of him sitting out entire season. But would a team have been willing to offer Bell a contract while he was a non-exclusive franchise tag player for the Steelers?

The difference between an exclusive franchise tag and a non-exclusive franchise tag is the players ability to negotiate an agreement with another team. If a player was tagged exclusively, they can only negotiate with the team in which they were tagged. If the team uses the nonexclusive tag (which is what is used the majority of the time), players can go out and negotiate a deal with another franchise. In doing so, the original team has the option to match the contract and keep the player. Should the original team refuse to match the offer, they would receive the new teams first-round draft picks for the next two drafts. In essence, the new team is trading their next two first-round draft picks for the player and they get them under the deal they have negotiated.

While another team signing away a player who has the non-exclusive franchise tag placed on them is rare, I can think of two cases off the top of my head where it happened. In 1998, defensive tackle Sean Gilbert had just sat out the previous season rather than play under the franchise tag for the Washington Redskins. When Washington used the tag again, Gilbert made a deal with the Carolina Panthers who gave up their 1999 and 2000 first-round picks to Washington. In 2000, Joey Galloway signed with the Dallas Cowboys while being tagged by the Seattle Seahawks which sent the Cowboys 2001 and 2002 first round choices to Seattle.

In both of these cases, the team signing the player under the franchise tag did not end up on the favorable side of the deal. Since it may be a high risk to sign such a player, it just doesn’t happen very often. But would a team have been interested in Le’Veon Bell in 2018 at the cost of two first-round draft picks? Obviously, we’ll never know.

If a team would have been interested in Bell, the Steelers would have had an easy out in just taking the two first-round draft picks. If the New York Jets would have offered Bell a contract, the Steelers could have been in the scenario listed above (or better) since the Jets picked in the third spot in the 2019 draft.

I never understood why the Steelers didn’t use the non-exclusive tag on Bell when using it a second straight year. After he sat out the season, the Steelers did not have the chance to use this type of tag for 2019 as the Collective Bargaining Agreement states only the exclusive tag can be used on a player when it is the third time.

One other more likely scenario if the Steelers had used the non-exclusive franchise tag with Le’Veon Bell is he may have realized no other teams were willing to pay what the Steelers offered. For all we know, Bell could have signed long term and played the entire 2019 season and still be under contract with the Steelers.

Ultimately, the way things worked out with Le’Veon Bell makes it easy to say the Steelers should have used the non-exclusive franchise tag. At the time, the Steelers probably thought they were sending a better message to Bell that they regarded him so highly they didn’t even want other teams in the mix. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the desired outcome.

Yes, it’s interesting to think about how things could have played out for the Steelers and if they would have received more than just a third-round compensatory pick for Le’Veon Bell. It would also be very nice for Steelers fans to be able to look at 2020 NFL mock drafts and see what the Steelers could be picking. Most importantly, having an additional player from the first round of 2019 as well as this upcoming draft could have helped the Steelers fill some holes in pursuit of another Super Bowl victory.