clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The yin and yang of Le’Veon Bell and Alejandro Villanueva’s Steelers contracts

New, comments

Two of Pittsburgh’s most important players could be free agents next spring.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Le’Veon Bell and Alejandro Villanueva are both fighting for lucrative, long-term extensions with the Pittsburgh Steelers. And that is essentially the extent of commonality between these players.

Bell is a the centerpiece of one of the best offenses in the NFL. And many people are very aware of this. Villanueva, on the other hand, has garnered some due respect from keen-eyed observers, but remains largely anonymous (as a football player, at least; plenty of folks likely recognize him as “the Army guy” who became an NFL success story) aside from being the de facto weakest link on one of the league’s most talented offensive lines. Is Villanueva as good as David DeCastro (an All-Pro), Maurkice Pouncey (an All-Pro) or Marcus Gilbert (a shoulda-been Pro Bowler)? No, probably not. But he allowed just five sacks last season and did so having playing in 100 percent of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps. For an offensive line that has dealt with numerous injuries over the past two or three seasons, Villanueva’s dependability makes him uniquely valuable.

With that said, let’s take a deeper look at Bell and Villanueva:

Good guy vs. Bad guy

We’ll start here just so we can effectively kill this narrative before it ever get its legs. To explain, Bell and Villanueva were both tendered for 2017: Bell was franchised tagged and is set to make $12.1 million in 2017 provided that a) he signs he franchise tender (which he hasn’t) or b) he and the Steelers fail to come to terms on a long-term agreement by July 17. Villanueva, meanwhile, was given an exclusive rights tender (which he hasn’t signed), rendering him Pittsburgh’s hostage (players with less than two years of service can be given this tender, which pays them the league minimum while preventing them from signing with another team) for the immediate future. Though both players were tendered, only Villanueva reported to minicamp; not because he is a gritty, team-first player while Bell is a selfish glory boy, but because he signed an injury waiver (Bell did not, which means he is technically not allowed to participate in any team activities, per team rules).

With that out of the way, let’s expand on the dollar amounts associated with these deals:

$$$ vs $

The franchise tag is admittedly awful. Although it provides players with a hefty little one-year payout, it gives them virtually no long-term security. So, if Bell is in fact discouraged about being tagged, his feelings are warranted.

But, $12 million is $12 million. $12 million is not, however, $650,000, which is what Villanueva will earn this season if he signs his tender without a long-term deal in place.

If Villanueva hit free agency right now, his market value would be be somewhere in the $6-9 million per year range, give or take a dollar or two. However, thanks to numerous teams grossly overpaying for league-average tackles (looking at you, Chargers, Panthers and Vikings), Villanueva’s true market value is difficult to appraise. Point being: this dude is fully aware of the fact that he is worth substantially more than $650,000 per year. Villanueva also turns 29 in September, so his window to cash in is shrinking. If his production dips or, God forbid, he gets injured, his earning potential will take a nosedive.

Bell, on the other hand, probably has a bigger cushion. As a bonafide superstar and near-consensus top running back in the NFL, Bell could endure a statistical drop-off and still reset the running back market his March. As long as he stays healthy, he will be the richest running back in league history by this time next season.

Importance to the Steelers

Bell and Villanueva are both important to the Steelers, but for different reasons. Bell’s impact is more palpable (and exciting) than Villanueva’s, but Villanueva is tasked with protecting the blind side of the one player who exerts the most control over Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl fate. Villanueva also executes key blocks for Bell, who often remains in the backfield for several hours waiting for running lanes to develop. Continuity is a critical element of good offensive line play, and Villanueva is the only left tackle in the NFL who truly understands Bell’s tendencies as a runner.

Importance to other teams

Pretend, for a moment, that both Bell and Villanueva both play out the season on their respective tenders and hit the open market this spring. Which player gets the most phone calls?

Common sense says Bell, who is on a Hall of Fame pace and only 25. However, the following factors could benefit Villanueva:

  • The proliferation of spread offenses in college (have you noticed that offensive line prospects have been extremely hit-or-miss over the past five years or so? Blame spread offenses for inhibiting scouts’ abilities to properly evaluate line prospects.
  • A forthcoming lack of veteran availability (many of the league’s best tackles are already signed to long-term deals).

If Villanueva play as well in 2017 as he did in 2016, he is going to be among the hottest commodities on the open market.

I think Bell obviously signs the larger deal, but I would not be surprised if Villanueva has a longer list of potential suitors.

The Steelers have enough money in the bank to sign both players this offseason, should they chose to do so. But holding their cards and seeing how both players perform in 2017 (remember, Bell has dealt with injuries and off-field issues while Villanueva still only has 26 career starts to his name) makes sense, too.