Examining The Steelers’ Options With Le’Veon Bell

Beginning Tuesday, February 19, the Steelers will be able to place either the franchise tag or the transition tag on disgruntled running back Le’Veon Bell. They have until 4pm ET on March 5 to do so, which means that we may have to wait another couple of weeks for the next chapter of this story to be written.

But now seems as good a time as any to explore Pittsburgh’s options with respect to Bell. Although those options have been discussed at various points throughout the last year, our readers may find it useful to have them all consolidated in one place. Let’s begin with the least likely option, the franchise tag.

Franchise Tag

The fact that Bell sat out the entirety of the 2018 season does complicate things, because it makes it unclear as to what the value of either the franchise tender or the transition tender will be. The Steelers will argue that Bell is not eligible for the increase in salary that a third tag would ordinarily include because of his season-long absence, and Bell, of course, will fight that. We have long heard that any tag would result in a hotly-contested battle between Pittsburgh and the NFLPA.

Depending on who wins that as-yet hypothetical dispute, Bell’s franchise tender would be valued at either over $20MM or $14.5MM. Either way, that is too much money for the Steelers to pay for a player that most believe will sit out the 2019 campaign if he is franchised. Pittsburgh could put the non-exclusive franchise tag on Bell in the hopes that another club would submit an offer sheet, but any offering club would need to part with two first-round draft choices if the Steelers don’t match the offer — and they wouldn’t — so that is not a realistic option either.

The only way the franchise tag makes sense is if the Steelers are confident that they would be successful in convincing an arbitrator that Bell’s 2019 tag value should be $14.5MM instead of the $20MM+ figure, and if they are confident that Bell would not want to sit out a second consecutive year, thereby missing out on another lofty salary and perhaps limiting his free agent market in 2020. As of right now, those sound like very risky propositions from the Steelers’ point of view.

Transition Tag

This remains the most likely scenario. We have been hearing for months that the Steelers are planning on using the transition tag, and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirms that is still the case. Again, there will be a salary dispute — Pittsburgh plans to argue that the tag value should be $9.5MM under the theory that Bell’s decision to sit out 2018 resets his transition tag formula, and Bell will submit that the value should be $14.5MM — but the transition tag in theory allows the Steelers to trade Bell in exchange for draft picks.

But as Dulac points out, that is not as easy as it might seem. Even if the Steelers agree to a trade with another team, Bell would still need to sign the transition tender before the trade can be consummated, and that would require a high level of cooperation from a player who has been anything but cooperative. Bell has previously said that he would be receptive to the transition tag because it allows him to negotiate in earnest with other clubs and land a fair deal, but he would certainly not like the fact that Pittsburgh would be largely controlling the process in this scenario.

The Steelers could match an offer sheet from another team and then try to trade him, but it is unlikely that the Steelers would be able to afford to match the offer sheet, and teams with more cap space can easily structure a deal that is impossible for Pittsburgh to match. And, even if the Steelers are able to match, they cannot trade Bell to the offering team without Bell’s approval, which again calls for cooperation that Bell is not expected to give.

Of course, it could be that other teams will be scared off by Bell’s holdout and his heavy workload and will extend him offers that the Steelers could match. As Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com pointed out earlier this month, there is still a faction of the organization that has a soft spot for Bell, and if his market does not develop as he expects, perhaps the Steelers could get him back on a club-friendly deal.

Let Him Walk

By allowing Bell to simply hit free agency without a tag, the Steelers can avoid a lot of headache and can assure themselves of getting a third-round compensatory pick in the 2020 draft. If they put the transition tag on Bell, and if Bell ends up signing an offer sheet with another club that the Steelers do not match, Pittsburgh would not be entitled to any draft compensation. The Steelers could transition Bell — they are likely to wait until closer to the March 5 deadline to do so in order to control his rights for as long as possible — and then rescind the tag if they start to feel like a trade is not possible. As long as they rescind before Bell signs an offer sheet elsewhere, they would be eligible for the compensatory pick.

Keep Him Without A Tag

It would be borderline miraculous if the Steelers and Bell simply agree to a multi-year deal to the liking of both sides without a tag having been imposed, but crazier things have happened. Not much crazier, though.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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20 comments on “Examining The Steelers’ Options With Le’Veon Bell

  1. emac22

    Most?

    Let’s be real. Is there anyone on the planet that thinks bell would sit out another year?

    I bet he’d sign and play for 10 mil if that was his only choice.

    He already went all in and lost. He doesn’t have any more millions to bet on his dwindling career window.

    • Rory Parks

      That does seem to be the general consensus though. And the Steelers really couldn’t afford an arbitrator saying that Bell is entitled to a salary of well over $20MM.

      • So if the arbitrator says he’s worth $20M as opposed to $14.5M, they can just rescind the tag as long as Bell hasn’t signed it. Do you see Bell jumping to sign a franchise tag for $20M, when he already turned down more than double that?

  2. emac22

    They also are not assured of a 3rd round pick if they just let him go.

    If they sign free agents with the money they save from him leaving they lose the pick.

    • Rory Parks

      True to an extent, but that doesn’t seem likely given the Steelers’ cap space and their typical approach to free agency.

  3. They should absolutely franchise him again, go to an arbitrator and it’ll likely rule his tag is for $14.5M, and then see what happens. If he sits out another year he’s likely done in the NFL…at least in terms of making big money. After 2 seasons away teams are going to be reluctant to guarantee big money…he’ll have to earn whatever he gets going forward.

      • Which counts am I wrong on? Am I wrong that the courts typically favor the NFL over individual players? Am I wrong that if Bell sits out another year it’ll 2 years since he last played a down in the NFL, which will give teams pause in guaranteeing huge sums of money? If he does sit out the year again—which I find doubtful, because I do think the Steelers will just let him walk—he’ll likely have to settle for a lower, short term “prove it” deal.

        • bencole

          Well, I think you’re wrong on the ruling for $14.5. I’d have to review the language but unless there’s language specifically limiting a situation like this in the CBA, Bell will likely win. I also think he would sit the 2019 season if the same situation came up. And I think he’s young enough and healthy enough to secure a fairly strong multi year deal after sitting 2018 and 2019. Age matters less in your late 20s for running backs when the wear and tear is limited.

          • It’s unlikely that there is specific language in the CBA that spells out what happens to a player if he’s franchised and sits out the year; I mean, I am sure there is some language, but it’s likely left open to interpretation and debate, and would result in a court battle. And my point was that the NFL has a far better record fighting in court than the players do…especially when it comes to current players in the league and how they’re treated and paid. That is why I think if push comes to shove, and it goes to the courts, that Bell’s tag will be worth $14.5M.

            As for Bell being young enough and healthy enough, and without the wear and tear on his body being a definite plus for him, I agree 100%. However, my argument wasn’t about his age or physical ability, but his lack of playing in the league for 2 years. Teams will (rightfully) be cautious about guaranteeing him huge money. For all intents and purposes Bell turned down $45M from the Steelers (the reported $70M offer included $30M+ guaranteed, and paid out $45M in the first three years…he would have collected all that barring horrific injury), and if he sits out another season he’s obviously doing it so he can better that number.

            Is a team, or an owner, going to put $50M+ in an account on the hopes that Bell is still the same after two years away? Not likely. (Can you provide an example of any NFL player who sat out for 2 years and was guaranteed big money before ever playing another down? Michael Vick was arguably the most talented human being walking the planet and no one guaranteed him huge money.)

            While I do think the Steelers will just let Bell walk, if it does so happen where he’s franchised and sits out another year, Bell will likely have to take a 1 year deal…he might get close to his franchise tag amount, but he’s not getting $50M or anywhere near it. And that is not an indication of his abilities or health, but about the risk to the team.

            • bencole

              I agree that it’s unlikely that there’s language in the CBA for that situation, but coming from someone e who litigates contracts for a living, the court is unlikely to interpret, or in essence add its own language, to a contract that airways discusses the franchise tag scenario, which lays out a procedure, but doesn’t suggest that a player can’t do this. Rather, it would be more likely to assume, as the franchise tag issue is addressed in the CBA, but this issue was not, that the teams never had a meeting of the minds on this particular issue, and that the intent of the parties is not visible in this issue. A court will be more to consider anything not bargained for still in the discretion of the parties rather than add a term, and a general rule is that ambiguous contracts are construed against the drafter, which is probably going to be considered the league.
              In the absence of a term, a court will almost never add its own, they are more likely to assume the Steelers tagged him in 2018, and the next time they tag him the tag escalates. If the rule reads something like that, the NFL would be asking the court to add a term, namely what happens if a guy doesn’t play.

  4. geejohnny

    What? He may sit out another year? Sure….he’s going to give up $35 to $40 mil of his prime earning yrs? For what? Because he was unhappy with his contract? My heads going to explode.

  5. crosseyedlemon

    “we may have to wait another couple of weeks for the next chapter of this story to be written.”

    I thought it would be playing in theaters by now.

  6. bucsfan

    The Steelers could have avoided all of this 2 years ago if they had used the non-exclusive tag. Bell could have explored the market to see what someone was willing to pay and the Steelers could have gotten two 1sts if they let him walk. Not likely that a team would give up those picks, but it only takes one GM to think Bell puts his tram over the top, which is a realistic argument given how good and versatile a player Bell is.

  7. TJECK109

    Why wouldn’t the Steelers us the non-exclusive tag and take the 2 #1 picks if someone signs him? That would be the way to go

    • bucsfan

      Plus it shows Bell just how much or little the rest of the league wants to pay him. I’d be happy to let him go with two first round picks coming back. That, plus the return for Brown, would help fix a lot of issues on defense and draft their replacements.

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