clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Making sense of Le’Veon Bell’s minicamp “holdout”

The All-Pro running back did not report to mandatory minicamp and is still without a contract. What happens now?

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Le’Veon Bell did not report to Pittsburgh’s minicamp.

In lieu of a thousand-word article with multiple of blocks of convoluted text, let’s do a Q&A kind of thing:

In 100 words or less, explain just what the heck is going on here.

The Steelers placed the franchise tag on Bell in March, which means he will play the 2017 season on a one-year, $12ish million contract unless he and the team come to terms on an extension before July 15. However, Bell has not yet signed the franchise tender, which means he is technically not under contract. Players who are not under contract are not permitted to participate in minicamp, even though this portion of the offseason is mandatory. Therefore, Bell cannot be fined for not participating in minicamp.

So, is this, like, a holdout?

That is tough to answer. Bell recently underwent surgery on his injured groin, so it isn’t clear how much he would’ve participated in drills even if he did report to minicamp. Also, since Bell hasn’t signed his tender, he wouldn’t have been allowed to participate, anyway, per the collective bargaining agreement. With that said, several of Bell’s teammates have gone on record to state that they would’ve liked to see him report to the offseason program, if for no other reason than to be near the team.

This particular scenario seems like an ad hoc holdout, wherein Bell’s primary goal is to compel the Steelers to get pen to paper before July 15.

Can you elaborate?

“Holdouts” typically become newsworthy when players start skipping training camp sessions or preseason games. This is mainly attributable to the fact that teams have free rein to fine players up to $30,000 per missed camp practice and up to 1/17 of their game check per missed preseason game, which is a crazy amount of money. In this sense, NFL teams essentially hold the trump card in holdout scenarios: if guys want paid, they have to show up eventually.

Is this common?

Very much so. Victor Cruz, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Houston, Von Miller, Vernon Davis and Andre Johnson are just a few of the big-name players who have held out for new contracts in recent years. Joey Bosa, a rookie at the time, missed almost three weeks of training camp last season holding out over some offset language in his first contract. In all cases, the players and their respective teams ultimately arrived at a resolution.

So, the July 15 deadline is a pretty big deal, huh?

Indeed it is. If the Steelers and Bell don’t come to terms on an extension by this date, Bell could potentially consider a camp holdout.

This is significant for three reasons:

  1. Since Bell did not sign his tag, he is not under contract, which means he is not subject to the fines associated with skipping camp and preseason games.
  2. Since Bell could potentially hold out without any financial repercussions, he actually has more leverage than your average disgruntled player.
  3. If the July 15 deadline comes and goes without much activity, it could indicate the Bell and the Steelers are still pretty far apart on contract terms. If the divide between both sides is too vast, Pittsburgh could conceivably pull the tag, making Bell an unrestricted free agent (this happened with Josh Norman and the Panthers last season). Bell could also continue his holdout until Week 10 of the regular season, at which point he would either need to sign the tag and suit up or sit for the entire season.

What would cause such a divide?

Bell is objectively one of the best running backs in the NFL, and maybe the best overall. He was historically good last season, averaging over 157 total yards per game and boasting one of the highest usage rates of all time (for example, he ran more routes per game than All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, per Pro Football Focus). Bell is also an adept blocker and arguably the best-conditioned player on the roster. He is, without question, a perfect football player.

What stands between Bell and a multiyear contract that will likely make him the highest-paid running back in NFL history is his injury history and his proclivity for stumbling on off-field hurdles.

Now, it isn’t entirely fair to put these cards on the table: Bell’s prior injuries have done little to curb his production, while his work ethic has endeared him to his coaching staff and teammates. Taking these factors into consideration, though, reveals the grungy, business-oriented underpinnings of the NFL. In other words, the Steelers have plenty of leverage, too.

Let me explain: waiting for Bell to simply sign his tender—and it is worth noting that it seems unlikely that Bell will actually hold out long enough to miss regular season games—allows the Steelers to protect their own self interests. It is a horrifying scenario to consider, but if Bell would suffer some sort of injury this season then the Steelers would simply pay him his $12 million and send him on his way (I hate, HATE even writing stuff like that).

But this is all standard operating procedure for the franchise tag—teams drag their feet, players get antsy. This ALWAYS happens.

So why is Bell’s case so unique?

Because Bell is unique.

The fact that Bell is so good at blocking, and running, and catching, and conditioning his body, and recovering from injuries, makes his true value difficult to appraise. The one-year tag value of $12 million and some change doesn’t seem too far off from Bell’s presumed annual asking price. Moreover, Bell, like any NFL player seeking to cash in on his hard work, is probably interested in a long-term deal.

The issue here is that giving a running back a five-year, $60 million deal is almost unprecedented. The Steelers have made huge investments elsewhere on the roster, most notably in the offensive line, which has assumed a leading role in the NFL hierarchy. In fact, it is the strength of Pittsburgh’s line that could throw a wrench in Bell’s negotiations, as veteran running back DeAngelo Williams posted huge numbers in Bell’s stead over the past two seasons. The Steelers could argue, potentially, that any relatively-unheralded back (James Conner, perhaps?) could thrive behind an All-Pro line and playing alongside a stable of talented offensive weapons and a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Bell, on the other hand, could scoff at Pittsburgh’s three-year, $33 million offer (I have no basis for this guess, but humor me for the sake of argument) and point to the fact that he is the most multitalented offensive player that the NFL has seen since LaDainian Tomlinson. If Bell were to become an unrestricted free agent, nearly every team in the NFL would be interested in acquiring his services. Bell is 25, which, based on precedent, sadly means that he is currently in the midst of or fast approaching his professional prime. Running backs tend to decline after their 27th birthday and considerably more once they reach 29. At 30, many running backs are almost unemployable. Bell wants to ensure that he is being compensated justly during the pinnacle of his career, just as he should.

So what happens now?

We wait. We pray that something gets done by July 15, though I’ve yet to hear any promising news in this domain. If Bell doesn’t sign a long-term deal by July 15 (or his tender), we brace for a holdout and go from there.

Sorry, I guess this ended up being a little over 1,000 words.