Pittsburgh Steelers halfback Le’Veon Bell is a consensus top-three player at his position, due in no small part to his multi-fold skill set, which includes soft hands and unparalleled ball carrier vision. Any team in the NFL would be lucky to roster a player of Bell’s caliber, which, strangely, is a happening that could very well come to fruition next spring.
Bell, a 2013 second-round pick, is set to become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins in March 2017. At this point, the Steelers will be forced to either sign Bell to a new contract, apply the franchise tag or allow him enter free agency.
Unfortunately for Bell, his injury history and multiple run-ins with the league policies have made Pittsburgh’s upcoming decision decidedly more complicated.
So, with that said, let’s apply some good old fashioned economic reasoning to Bell’s future as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Pros of signing Bell to a long-term contract
Bell, 24, has already distinguished himself as one of the most versatile offensive weapons in franchise history. Despite missing three games this season, Bell currently ranks 6th in the NFL with 1,136 scrimmage yards, which places him ahead of comparable halfbacks such as Lamar Miller, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte. Bell has suffered two pretty significant knee injuries so far in his career, though neither event has done much to slow him down. He’s averaging 123 scrimmage yards per game for his career, which is a legitimate Hall of Fame pace. Signing Bell to a long-term contract will give him the financial security that he likely covets while concurrently ensuring that Pittsburgh doesn’t lose his talents to a competitor.
Cons of signing Bell to a long term contract
Though Bell’s recovery from his most recent knee injury (which occurred just 13 months ago) is borderline superhuman, his injury history is still concerning. So, too, is Bell’s absurdly heavy utilization rate, which began during his sophomore year at Michigan State.
Bell’s remarkable abilities are undeniable, and he likely still hasn’t reached his statistical peak. However, the window for running backs to produce like Bell is currently producing is notoriously small. The odds of Bell - or any running back, for that matter - maintaining such a torrid pace for the life of a four or five year contract are not good.
Even if Bell does outperform his contract, the $8-10 million per year that it will cost to keep him on the team could inhibit Pittsburgh’s spending power down the road. With Antonio Brown, Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier all in need of new contracts by or before the 2019 season, the Steelers could certainly use some financial flexibility.
Pros of applying the franchise tag
Using the franchise tag is probably the most fiscally responsible course of action, as this figure corresponds to the average salary received by the top-five highest paid players at a particular position. Last season, the one-year tag figure for running backs was in the neighborhood of $11 million. With the retirement of Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster, two of 2015’s top earners at the running back position, the 2017 tag figure will probably be considerably lower. Therefore, the Steelers have two options: apply the tag as a one-year “prove your worth and stay out of trouble” promotion consideration, or apply the tag and ride Bell hard for yet another season, and wave goodbye as he signs a massive deal elsewhere in free agency.
Additionally, tagging Bell gives the Steelers the opportunity to account for his loss one year early. If the Steelers apply the tag in March (and if the front office truly believes he won’t return for the 2018 season), they could conceivably use a high draft pick to draft a running back. With the like of Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Samaje Perine and D’Onta Foreman all draft eligible, it's a fine year to need a running back. The Steelers could also receive a high compensatory draft pick if Bell departs, which, fittingly, they could use to draft his replacement.
Cons of applying the franchise tag
Since the value of the tag may very well be less than what Bell would receive in average salary as part of an extension, applying the tag will likely foster some animosity between his management team and Pittsburgh’s front office.
My opinion (for those who care)
Sign him long term. Pittsburgh’s championship window is going to take a pretty big hit after Ben Roethlisberger retires, which could occur sometime within the next five years. Certainly, the Steelers have won Super Bowls without Le’Veon Bell, but their chances of earning their seventh title are markedly better as long as he and Roethlisberger occupy the same backfield. If Bell recognizes this, he may feel compelled to stick around.
Bell is every bit as valuable to the Steelers as Brown or Roethlisberger, so allowing him to hit free agency in the prime of his career is maddening to consider. If Bell is lowballed by a team-friendly “hometown” discount from Kevin Colbert and company (which I suspect either will happen or already has happened in past negotiations), he should not be judged for seeking work elsewhere. However, most players tend to exhibit some semblance of team loyalty, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Bell accepted slightly less money from the Steelers than he could from, say, the Browns.