Le’Veon Bell will earn $12.12 million this season to play running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but his long-term future remains unknown. Monday’s franchise tag deadline passed, so Bell will operate under the tag during the upcoming season. He’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2018, but could always be franchise tagged again.
Shortly after the deadline, Bell shared his initial thoughts on Twitter.
A little later, Bell spoke to ESPN about his failed negotiations with the Steelers. He wouldn’t reveal any specifics of the contracts — like Washington did after the deadline — but he did lend some insight into his thought process.
“It’s a little frustrating, but it’s a business,” Bell told ESPN. “I’m not in a rush to sign for something I’m not valued at, if I feel I’m worth more than what they are offering me.”
Bell said he rejected the Steelers’ offer because he didn’t want to contribute to the devaluation of the running back position.
“The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” Bell said. “We do everything. We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”
Bell’s 2017 contract ranks second among running backs next season in terms of total cash. Only Leonard Fournette will make more than him, per Spotrac. But Bell isn’t chasing a lucrative one-year deal. He’s chasing a big long-term contract.
And he’s right — at least about himself. He really does do everything. In 12 games last year, Bell rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns. As a receiver, he caught 75 passes for 616 yards and two touchdowns. Put together, he racked up 1,884 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns.
That’s why the Steelers can’t afford to let him go next offseason. Luckily for Bell, he’ll have some more leverage next time around. As our Joel Corry, a former agent, explained back in February:
Any competent agent tries to take the average of franchising a player twice and use the number as a fair approximation of a long-term deal when it’s a realistic possibility that his client will receive the designation to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. It’s going to be a tough sell with Bell since a contract averaging in the $13.5 million neighborhood doesn’t reflect the state of the top portion of the running back market. Nonetheless, the possibility of Pittsburgh putting a franchise tag on Bell can be used as ammunition to increase the floor on a long-term deal.
It wouldn’t be ideal but Bell’s best way to maximize his compensation might be playing under at least one franchise tag if the right deal doesn’t materialize before the July 15 deadline for reaching multiyear contracts with franchise players. There would be risk because a big payday could go out the window with another serious injury like in 2015. Bell has only a played a full 16-game regular season once, in 2014. He missed the playoffs that season with a hyperextended right knee.
Bell’s window of opportunity for a massive contract would still exist in 2018 at 26 even though running backs have a shorter shelf life than other positions. He could continue to erase any off-field concerns the Steelers might still have over the next year by waiting. Pittsburgh would have more pressure than this offseason to reach an agreement with Bell even if there is a second franchise tag because a third one would be the highest number at any position.
The good news for the the Steelers? Bell doesn’t want to play anywhere besides Pittsburgh.
“I definitely don’t want to play for anybody else,” Bell said. “You never know what will happen. Today was a big eye-opener. I’m going to definitely enjoy my best year with the Steelers and be happy with it.”