The assumption was Le'Veon Bell, who was given his second-consecutive franchise tag in early March, this time for $14.544 million, would take the same approach as last year when he and the Steelers were unable to reach agreement prior to the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long-term deals. The running back had skipped the entire 2017 preseason before signing his franchise tender on Labor Day.
Bell hasn't reported yet, much to the chagrin of the Steelers. There's an unwritten rule that players should remain silent if they're not supportive of a teammate's contract stance. This didn't prevent some of Bell's' teammates, particularly the offensive line, from harshly criticizing his continued absence.
Adisa Bakari, Bell's agent, didn't give an indication during radio and television appearances of when the three-time All Pro would report. It remains to be seen when Bell joins the Steelers, although it will reportedly occur on Saturday according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport.
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In the meantime, here are answers to the most frequently asked questions I've received on Twitter over the last few days relating to Bell's situation.
Why is Bell unsigned?
Bell's absence isn't financially driven in the same manner as those of Aaron Donald, Earl Thomas and Khalil Mack. By Collective Bargaining Agreement rule, the Steelers are prohibited from signing Bell to a multi-year contract until after the 2018 regular season, which ends on Dec. 30.
Bell is expected to have an extremely heavy workload if and when he reports to the Steelers. He led the NFL with 321 rushing attempts and 406 touches (combined receptions and rushing attempts) in 2017 despite sitting out the season finale for precautionary measures with the playoffs looming.
Bell and his agent are concerned that heavy usage this season will impact his ability for a huge payday in 2019, presumably as an unrestricted free agent. Free agency has largely been disappointing for running backs with big salary expectations who are trying to capitalize on an outstanding performance over the last few years.
DeMarco Murray is a prime example. He was named 2014's NFL Offensive Player of the Year after breaking Emmitt Smith's single-season Cowboys rushing record by gaining 1,845 yards on the ground in 392 carries, which were the eighth-most ever in an NFL regular season. Murray had another 44 carries in the playoffs to bring his total to 436 rushing attempts. He tied for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns and had the most yards from scrimmage in the league. Murray also broke Jim Brown's 56-year-old NFL record of six-consecutive games with 100 rushing yards or more to begin a season, when he started with an eight-game streak.
Reservations about Murray's future productivity because of how running backs performed historically following a high-mileage season contributed to him being unable to monetize his success as much as he could if playing practically any other position. The Cowboy were unwilling to make a substantial financial commitment to Murray due to this and a belief that he benefitted from running behind a great offensive line. Murray received a five-year, $40 million contract -- which included $21 million in guarantees and was worth a maximum of $42 million through salary escalators -- from the Eagles in 2015 free agency. The deal made Murray the NFL's sixth-highest-paid running back by average yearly salary.
Will Bell receive his full franchise tender if he signs after the regular season starts?
No. Bell loses 1/17th of his $14.544 million franchise tender, which has been counting against Pittsburgh's salary cap since he received the designation, for each week he misses. That's $855,529 per week. In addition to saving money, the Steelers get a salary-cap credit in that amount for every week he is unsigned.
The Steelers can apply for a roster exemption for up to two weeks upon Bell's return, which would allow for them to exceed the 53-man roster limit. A roster move wouldn't need to be made until Pittsburgh decided to activate Bell. Since Bell is an unsigned franchise player, the Steelers and Bell's agent must agree on how much the running back would be paid while under the exemption prior to his signing. Practically speaking, it's hard to envision an exemption scenario where Bell would receive less than his full weekly salary of his tender.
Bell will only receive a pro rata amount of his franchise tender. For example, if Bell signed after the fourth week of the regular season, he would receive 13/17ths of his $14.544 million tender, which is approximately $11.122 million. Bell must sign by Saturday to get the full amount of the tender.
Can the Steelers give Bell more than his franchise tender to induce him to report?
Yes. Bell isn't restricted to just playing for his franchise tender with Steelers. He is allowed to negotiate his one-year salary and other conditions relating to his franchise-player status.
It is customary for franchise players who don't get long-term deals to play for the tender amount. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul signed an incentive-laden one-year deal in 2015 worth up to the prorated amount of his franchise tag after severely injuring his right hand during a Fourth of July fireworks accident, which kept him from being physically cleared to play football until seven weeks into the season.
Bell getting more than his tender amount would be unprecedented. A few franchise players have been able to negotiate a clause preventing a franchise or transition designation for the following year to ensure unrestricted free agency. That hasn't happened in a decade.
Can the Steelers rescind Bell's franchise tender?
It would be counterproductive to rescind the tender of arguably the best dual-threat running back in the NFL, since the Steelers have Super Bowl aspirations. Bell would become an unrestricted free agent with rescission.
Franchise tenders have been revoked on four occasions. The last revocation was Josh Norman's by the Panthers in 2016, shortly before the NFL draft. Norman promptly signed a long term deal with the Redskins, making him the NFL's highest-paid cornerback. The only time it's happened after training camps opened was when the Eagles rescinded defensive tackle Corey Simon's right before the start of the 2005 regular season. He signed a lucrative long-term deal with the Colts several days later.
Can the Steelers still trade Bell?
Bell can be dealt to another team until the 2018 season trading deadline at 4 p.m. ET on Oct. 30. However, players with unsigned tenders can't be traded until signed.
Essentially, this gives Bell a de facto no-trade clause. I helped represent cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock while working as agent. We recommended that Hitchcock refuse to sign his restricted free-agent tender so the Patriots couldn't trade him to the Ravens during the 1998 NFL draft, since he didn't want to be dealt to a team that drafted a cornerback in the first round. It killed the trade. Hitchcock signed his tender for a trade to the Vikings, who hadn't used a high pick on a cornerback.
A team must have enough salary-cap room to absorb the prorated amount of Bell's franchise tender in order to make a trade for him during the season. For example, a team acquiring Bell at the trading the deadline must have at least $7.7 million cap room available for 9/17ths of his franchise tag.
The prohibition on signing a long term deal until the season ends also applies to the new team with a trade. The inability to sign Bell long-term complicates a trade and limits the draft compensation Pittsburgh could get in return for him.
The acquiring team could designate Bell as transition or franchise player, which would be his third time, in 2019. A player can only be franchised three times during his career. The procedures outlined in the CBA dictate that Bell's third tag will be the greater of 144 percent of his second franchise designation or the largest number at any position, which is almost always quarterback. Assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million neighborhood, the quarterback number should be approximately $25 million.
Is there a deadline for Bell to sign?
It's 4 p.m. ET on the Tuesday after Week 10 games (Nov. 13). That's the signing deadline for draft picks, unrestricted free agents getting a May tender and players with restricted free agent, franchise or transition tenders. If these types of players remain unsigned after this date, they are prohibited from playing during the 2018 season.
Are there any special considerations with signing at or near the deadline?
No. Since there has been what I thought to be some erroneous reporting about Bell's contract potentially tolling or extending for another year and him needing to earn an accrued season (i.e.; a year of service for free agency), I checked with a couple of NFL team and NFLPA sources I trust to get clarification.
A team can try to toll a player's contract under the extension provisions in paragraph 16 of the standard NFL player contract when a player has a lengthy regular-season holdout. Tolling is not applicable to Bell's absence because he isn't withholding services he is contractually obligated to perform. He is unsigned. This is the same reason why Donald, Mack and Thomas were subject to daily fines during the preseason with their holdouts while Bell wasn't. If any of the three had continued their holdouts until Week 10, they would have run the risk of their contracts tolling.
Generally, six or more regular-season games on the 53 man-roster, injured reserve or physically unable to perform list are necessary to earn an accrued season. The weeks that a player is under a roster exemption don't qualify. If Bell wasn't activated during a two-week exemption, he would have five games that count for an accrued season leaving him one game short.
Getting another accrued season doesn't matter for Bell or anyone else with at least four of them because these players already have enough service time to qualify for unrestricted free agency with an expiring contract. Bell already has five accrued seasons.
My sources confirmed my understanding. The NFLPA indicated that a grievance would be filed on Bell's behalf if the Steelers tried to toll his contract under these circumstances.
What happens if Bell sits out the entire season?
Obviously, Bell wouldn't get paid any of his $14.544 million franchise tender. The Steelers would get $14.544 million of cap relief this year. The unused cap space could carry over to the 2019 league year. A franchise player hasn't sat out a full season since the late 1990s: Redskins defensive tackle Sean Gilbert did it in 1997, and Chiefs defensive end Dan Williams followed suit a year later.
The Steelers would have to designate Bell as a transition or franchise player again in 2019 to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. The CBA mandates a tender at the greater of 120 percent of his prior year's salary (i.e.; salary cap number) or the sum of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at running back (average of five largest salaries annually) over the last five years divided by the cumulative salary caps for the same period where the resulting percentage is multiplied by the current year's salary cap (known as Cap Percentage Average). Since the running back number from the Cap Percentage Average projects to $11.325 million if the 2019 salary cap is set in the $190 million neighborhood, Bell's tag would come from his prior year's salary. A third franchise tag for Bell would be the same as his current figure because his prior year's salary would his 2016 salary of $12.12 million.
A third franchise designation would operate like the exclusive one Bell received this year. He would be prevented from soliciting an offer sheet from other NFL teams.
This dynamic gives Bell plenty of incentive to return at some point before the Week 11 deadline. Tagging him again at $14.544 million wouldn't be out of the question despite the acrimony, whereas $25 million or so would be too cost prohibitive.