There has been loads of speculation here at BTSC in regards to impending 2017 free agent Le'Veon Bell, with regards to his future with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bell is loaded for days, talent wise—there is no disputing that, but there are concerns.
One issue is that Bell has had a tough time staying healthy. The other is that Bell is currently in the NFL's substance abuse program, due to his DUI and marijuana arrest. Comparing Bell to the Martavis Bryant situation is a bit unfair, but that has to sit in the back of Pittsburgh's GM Kevin Colbert's mind while negotiating a mega deal.
A foot injury in Bell's rookie season, 2013, cost him three games. His stellar play continued in 2014 as Bell eclipse 2200 total yards. A hard hit in Week 16- forced Bell to miss the playoffs. Then his 2015 season got off to a rocky start, with a two-game suspension for a DUI and marijuana possession, Bell was just hitting full stride when a controversial play resulting in injury to his right knee, ended his season in Week 8.
A contract year looms large for both Bell and the Steelers.
Do the Steelers view Bell as an injury prone back who has made poor off-field decisions? Or do they view him more as the player who owns a 4.92 yards per attempt with some of the softest receiving hands in the NFL? The Steelers have multiple options and the ball is in their court.
A roundup of the possibilities:
Option 1: Let Bell play out his contract year. If Bell performs up to and beyond expectations, toss the franchise tag on him and work out a long-term contract. Most NFL players despise the franchise tag and can cause ripples if not waves while trying to hammer out a long term deal. Players want long term security in case of injury that can hurt their value. Speculation has the franchise tag for a RB in 2017 around $12.88 million which is around 8.8 percent of the Steelers' salary cap. (I reached the almost $13 million number based on the fact that this year's cap for RB was $11.87 million and rose 8.4 percent from 2015. Progression takes it up another $1 million.)
Option 2: Sign Bell to a contract extension before the season starts. Steeler fans know that the Steelers do not rework contracts once the season starts. The details of the contract demands will depend on the information Bell is fed by the people around him, most notably by his agent. Adisa Bakari is not a house-hold name in the agent world, even though Maurice Jones-Drew is still represented by him. Matt Forte, Tyrod Taylor, Stefon Diggs and Bell are Bakari's most noteworthy clients. Forte, 30, agreed to a deal worth $12 million over three years with the Jets. That's a deal I would definitely call team friendly--should anything be read into this?
Option 3: Let Bell play out 2016 and have the market set his value. There are always plenty of NFL teams with salary cap to spend. These teams generally have loads of cap space due to poor talent. This brings up the age old question in the NFL. Would you rather be filthy rich and never have a shot at a ring, or does the player take a hometown discount to have a legit shot to win the Super Bowl? If a bidding war would break out, most likely Steeler Nation would lose out on Bell.
Option 4: Trading Bell is a slight option. Slap the franchise tag on him, find a trading partner and let Bell and that team work out a contract. The Steelers then sign Bell to the contract, and he is traded away. This scenario rarely happens, and I highly doubt this will transpire.
Bell is one hell of a player, there is no denying that, but the RB position is no longer viewed as being as important in the NFL- as it used to be. Most teams use a running back-by-committee approach. Two lower-paid running backs today do what one back did 20 years ago.
Look at the NFL draft as a prime example. The following shows the last decade of RBs taken in the first-round.
Of first-round running backs drafted before 2013, only Mark Ingram, Doug Martin and Jonathan Stewart sit atop their team's depth chart. The reason? A running back's shelf life is just so short compared to most other positions. This is mainly due to injuries as they take their toll from the constant pounding.
Pittsburgh generally does not negotiate contracts until late July and into August. The crucial point in any contract negotiations with any Steeler players will most likely be dependent on Lawrence Timmons re-working his massive $15 million contract. David DeCastro, I believe, will be the next contract to be worked out. How DeCastro's contract is worked out will be a complete indicator of whether more deals are coming. A backloaded, team-friendly 2016 cap number would be a big indicator that more contracts are yet to come.
One situation to watch is how Bell's agent, Bakari, handles the Tyrod Taylor contract situation. Why is this important? If Taylor signs a contract that is incentive based or back-end loaded, shows that Bakari is willing to negotiate contracts that put an emphasis on the player's ability to hit those bonus escalators. Bell's agent has already gone to the media in regards to Taylor. If he is looking to get Taylor $20 million per year, that could be a negative sign about how he is going to handle Bell's contract.
As much as the Black and Gold fans hate to hear it, the NFL is a business. Until Bell proves that he can stay healthy the Steelers should not pay him LeSean McCoy money. Averaging $8 million per year, McCoy is the second highest-paid-running back-for good reason. McCoy has only missed eight games in five years, four coming last year after he signed his current deal. In that five-year span Shady has three years with over 1,300 rushing yards.
Paying Bell money similar to a contract Doug Martin signed earlier this offseason, five-year $35.75 million (averaging $7.15 million per year; $15 million fully guaranteed with no bonuses,)--is more acceptable in my opinion. Martin was able to get the Bucs to overpay mainly because they have so much cap room along with a great desire to lock up a player who has rushed for over 1,400 yards twice in his young career.
I am going to be realistic in presenting what I believe what the Steelers should and should not do, not only for salary cap purposes but also what is best for the Black and Gold. They need to offer Bell a contract below Martin's, and never go above McCoy's. They have to avoid pulling out the franchise tag. The threat of it can get both sides motivated to get a deal done. Slapping the tag on a player prohibits Pitt. from being more active on the free agent-market. If a contract is done, it is generally done when the free-agent market has dried up.
My fear is that Bell is going to over-inflate his value and expect a deal worth $10 million per year, which is unacceptable for a position the NFL as a whole no longer views as being of great importance. When was the last time you heard the NFL referred to as a running league? The NFL is a passing league. If he isn't willing to take a deal worth less than $8 million per season, let him go. Take the third-round compensatory pick and sign one of the FA running backs who hit the market in 2017 (Gio Bernard, Eddie Lacy, Latavius Murray or Ronnie Hillman) or snag a non-first-round RB in 2017. Use that cap savings to secure not only a running back, but also another valued position, such as ROLB, for the same price.