Monday afternoon at 4pm was the deadline for teams to sign their franchise tag recipients to long-term contracts. That deadline has come and gone, and for the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers and All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell were unable to agree on a long-term extension to remain a Steeler for the foreseeable future. Ian Rapoport reported that the final offer the Steelers made to Bell was for five years and $70 million. Last year, Bell was only offered five years for $60 million. The holdout was worth the wait for Bell, but once again, Bell is going to bet on himself. This is a strategy perfected by Kirk Cousins, who signed a three-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings for $28 million a season, fully guaranteed. Cousins proved to teams outside of Washington DC that he was worthy of a franchise quarterback salary, which Dan Snyder was not willing to pay. Bell has taken the same approach.
Although I respect Bell for being confident in his ability to earn a record deal for an NFL running back, I do not know if he will get a better deal than the one reported by Rapoport. Bell will be 27 going into next season, and he has already registered over 1500 touches in his five seasons in the league. His torn MCL in 2015 was the only major injury of his career thus far, but he has been suspended in the past for violating the NFL’s drug policy in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Bell held out for a contract extension while on the franchise tag in 2017, and there is a strong possibility of him doing the same in 2018. Now, I get that Bell is arguably the best player at his position, but what makes you think that he will get more than $70 million over five years from a different team when the last two NFL drafts produced elite running backs in rounds two and three? Running backs can be cheap commodities for championship caliber teams.
Below is the list of the starting running back on each of the last ten Super Bowl winning rosters:
LII: Philadelphia Eagles, LeGarrette Blount
LI: New England Patriots, James White
L: Denver Broncos, CJ Anderson
XLIX: New England Patriots, LeGarrette Blount
XLVIII: Seattle Seahawks, Marshawn Lynch
XLVII: Baltimore Ravens, Ray Rice
XLVI: New York Giants, Ahmad Bradshaw
XLV: Green Bay Packers, Ryan Grant
XLIV: New Orleans Saints, Pierre Thomas
XLIII: Pittsburgh Steelers, Rashard Mendenhall
The only player on this list that was a top five running back at the time he played in the Super Bowl was Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is also the only guy on this list that made more than HALF ($8.5 million) of what Bell was offered to sign an extension. Rice was second on this list with a $5 million cap hit. Running backs on large contracts are not ideal for any team around the league, especially teams with limited cap space that are in contention to win a Super Bowl. Bell is gambling that a team with a significant amount of cap space, often translating to a young or unproven quarterback, is willing to give him a shot. Even in that situation, I cannot see more than a three-year deal being available.
For Bell to have a chance of inking the contract he wants during free agency in 2019, he is going to have to show teams that he is committed to winning and staying clean off the field. I believe for this reason, he needs to attend all the Steelers remaining off-season programs, and prove he is willing to work with anyone, including the team that he feels has wronged him.
Speaking of that team that would not give Bell the contract he believed he earned, the Steelers still offered Bell $14 million per season for five years, which is insane for a 27-year-old running back. The Steelers have been good for the entire Ben Roethlisberger era but have not been great since their last Super Bowl win back in the 2009-2010 season. As a Bucs fan, I am jealous of the success the Steelers have each season, but if I were a Steelers fan, I’d be disappointed that the core of Ben, Antonio Brown, Bell, and this loaded offensive line have not been able to reach another Super Bowl. The Steelers Super Bowl teams were best known for their elite defenses when Roethlisberger was not making franchise quarterback money. Since 2009, the front office has lacked the ability to rebuild a strong enough defense to win another championship to date. Signing Bell to a long-term deal would have consumed any remaining salary cap flexibility in the coming seasons to help make improvements throughout the roster. James Connor is a serviceable, cheap back in the interim, and the Steelers could always look for another playmaker in the 2019 draft or free agency next season when Bell becomes an unrestricted free agent.
The Steelers should be happy that Bell did not accept his contract extension. Bell was offered a fair contract, and since it was declined, the fanbase will be more frustrated about that, and not at the organization for failing to keep a fan favorite in the black and yellow.
My prediction is that Bell will holdout of camp to save his legs, will record over 300 touches, and have another All-Pro season to add to his resume. The Steelers will reluctantly let him walk, and he will sign a short-term deal in the range of $15 million a year for a team that is desperate for a playmaker.
Both sides of this story made moves that did not make much sense to me, but luckily for the Steelers, they won’t have to face the consequences of paying Bell long-term.
Photo Credit: SI.com