Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell has established himself as arguably the best all-purpose running back in the NFL. Despite the fact that Bell played in just six games last season due to an early-season suspension and a season-ending knee injury in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals, NFL Network recently ranked him No. 41 on their list of the Top 100 Players in the NFL, and fantasy experts have unanimously placed Bell atop or near the top of their respective fantasy football rankings.
As a legitimate three-down workhorse (or bell-cow, or whatever animal-based running back pun you prefer), Bell provides stability to one of the NFL's most prolific offenses. In addition to handling 20 or 25 rushing attempts per game, Bell is an exceptional blocker, and he may very well be the Steelers' second-best receiver.
In fact, the only knock on Bell thus far in his career has been his erroneously-bestowed "injury proneness." In three seasons, Bell has suffered two significant knee injuries, the most recent of which may actually hamper his participation in training camp and the preseason.
As it stands, Bell is under contract through the end of the 2016 season. Typically, the Steelers like to negotiate new contracts with non-quarterbacks who have fewer than one year on their existing deals. Last summer, for example, Pittsburgh handed DE Cameron Heyward a pricey contract extension before the team reported to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe Pa. for training camp. Bell's "injury history," however, could complicate negotiations between himself and his employer this summer. With this in mind, there are really only three likely outcomes concerning Bell's expiring contract:
Option 1: The Steelers sign Bell to a contract extension at or slightly below market value before the beginning of the 2016 regular season
First, it is probably necessary to look back at some of the recent contracts awarded to top-tier running backs. In March, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed All-Pro RB Doug Martin to a five-year, $35 million contract with $15 million in guaranteed money. Martin, like Bell, has dealt with some pervious injuries, but he had some leverage in negotiations after finishing the 2015 season as the league's second-leading rusher. However, Martin is already 27, which means he may very well have already plateaued. Bell, who does not turn 25 until next February, has time on his side. The Philadelphia Eagles, meanwhile, signed former rushing champion LeSean McCoy to a five-year, $45 million contract when he was just 23. At this point, the only major injury McCoy had suffered was a dislocated ankle during his senior year of high school. Now, I'm no salary cap expert, but if I had to take a stab at what constitutes a "fair" deal for Bell, I would point to something in the range of the five-year, $43 million deal that Arian Foster signed with the Houston Texans when he was 25. Bell and Foster are pretty similar in terms of their playing styles, and the ages match up fairly well.
With that said, Pittsburgh's main priority this offseason will be signing All-Pro G David DeCastro to an extension, which probably won't leave them with much maneuverability to offer Bell a fair deal this summer. Of course, Bell and the team could always find some common ground...
Option 2: The Steelers sign Bell to an extremely team-friendly deal this summer
The folks watching over the books in Pittsburgh do their jobs as well as anyone in the league. The Steelers could sign Bell to a low-risk one- or two-year extension for the $8-9 million per year that Bell is likely seeking. However, NFL players usually value years (read, job security) more than guaranteed money, which is precisely why so many players dread the franchise tag. Pittsburgh could also attempt to convince Bell to accept some sort of hometown discount, but he is by no means obligated to sign such a deal, particularly given that he plays arguably the most physically demanding position in sports. This leaves, in my opinion, the most likely outcome regarding Bell's deal:
Option 3: Both sides table contract talks for now and see how things play out
All things considered, the odds of Bell signing an extension with Pittsburgh this summer don't look particularly promising. In addition to Bell being seemingly Pittsburgh's second priority in the contractual hierarchy, the team has yet to re-work any existing deals, including LB Lawrence Timmons' absurd $15 million cap number. At present, the team has a little over $1.5 million in cap room according to Over the Cap, so there certainly isn't much wiggle room when it comes to signing Bell and DeCastro, two of the league's premier offensive talents, to massive contract extensions.
More importantly, waiting until next spring to discuss Bell's contract is mutually beneficial for both parties. For one, playing out his rookie deal gives Bell incentive to play hard for a McCoy- or Foster-sized contract. Based on early reports from Pittsburgh's OTAs (and some of his Instagram posts), Bell's injured knee looks just fine so far, and his notoriously rigorous workout routine should allow him to pick up right where he left off last season. However, there is some risk involved for Bell, as a subpar 2016 campaign could negatively impact his market value. As for the Steelers, waiting to discuss an extension with Bell will give them a full season to determine how well his knee has healed. If Bell ends up playing himself out of Pittsburgh's price range, at least the team got one more dominant season from one of the league's top running backs.
Bell could assuredly earn more money elsewhere. However, he will be hard-pressed to find a team that complements his skill set as well as the Steelers. There is still an entire summer, fall, and winter to see how things play out, but if Pittsburgh's current cap situation is any indication of things to come, Steelers fans could be sweating Bell's new deal for quite some time.