The Le'Veon Bell saga has finally come to a close for the time being. As a franchise player with an unsigned tender, Bell had until 4 p.m. ET on the Tuesday after Week 10's games to reach an agreement with the Steelers. Bell missed this deadline when he didn't sign an NFL player contract Tuesday, so under NFL rules, he won't play football again until the 2019 season.
Bell kept practically everyone in the dark, including his Steelers teammates, about his plans for the season. He alluded to this outcome before the Steelers met the Jaguars in last season's AFC divisional playoffs. Bell indicated he would consider sitting out the season or retiring if given a second franchise tag.
It was widely assumed Bell would take the same approach with his $14.544 million franchise tag as last year after an agreement was unable to be reached prior to the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long-term deals. The three-time All-Pro didn't sign his franchise tender until Labor Day in 2017.
Bell rejected a five-year deal reportedly in the $14-to-$15-million-per-year range containing a $10 million signing bonus and a $10 roster bonus due shortly after signing, according to various reports. Slightly over $33 million of the money was in the first two years. The three-year cash flow was $45-to-$47 million.
Adisa Bakari, Bell's agent, contended that the Steelers were more interested in paying the running back position instead of his client, which is the norm with NFL contracts. Players are paid according to position, with the primary exception being those who can consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, whether a 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 outside linebacker or interior defensive lineman.
The structure of Pittsburgh's offer was more problematic than the money. This is because Pittsburgh's veteran contracts have a vanilla structure. Outside of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the only guaranteed money in Pittsburgh deals is typically a signing bonus. Roethlisberger's base salary guarantees are for injury only. The bigger deals contain a third- or fifth-day-of-the-league-year roster bonus in the second and third years. Occasionally, there is a first-year roster bonus, as was reportedly in Bell's offer. The roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees. The overall guarantees in Pittsburgh contracts are usually less than comparable deals on other teams.
(For more discussion on the Bell saga, including our NFL Insider Jason La Canfora's take on how Bell could indeed up back in Pittsburgh after all, check out today's episode of The Pick 6 Podcast below.)
Pittsburgh had demonstrated a willingness to dramatically reset a running back that had been steadily declining in recent years. The current benchmark at the deadline was the five-year, $41.25 million extension with slightly over $22 million of guarantees Devonta Freeman received from the Falcons during the 2017 preseason.
Bell becomes the first franchise player to sit out a full season since the late 1990s. Redskins defensive tackle Sean Gilbert did it in 1997. Chiefs defensive end Dan Williams followed suit a year later. Sitting out the season ensures Bell will be completely healthy for the offseason. Bell and his agent were concerned that another heavy usage season, following the same blueprint as last year, would impact his ability to land a huge contract in 2019. In 2017, he led the NFL with 321 rushing attempts and 406 touches (combined receptions and rushing attempts) despite sitting out the season finale for precautionary measures with the playoffs looming.
Immediate economic implications
Bell was already forgoing 1/17th of his $14.544 million franchise tender or $855,529 with each week he missed. The Steelers have been getting a weekly salary-cap credit in the corresponding amount. Bell forfeits the remaining almost $6 million of his tender to bring his total lost income to $14.544 million. Receiving the full franchise tag would have nearly doubled Bell's career earnings. Bell has made a little more than $15.875 million from his NFL contracts. The Steelers will get $14.544 million of cap relief this year. The unused cap space can carry over to the 2019 league year.
The Steelers' options
Playing this season isn't required for Bell to qualify for unrestricted free agency in 2019. He had the four accrued seasons or years of service for free agency necessary to become unrestricted when his rookie contract expired after the 2016 season. Bell currently has five accrued seasons.
The Steelers will have Bell's exclusive negotiating rights from the end of the regular season on Dec. 30 until March 11, when the two-day negotiation period prior to the start of free agency -- when agents can have contract discussions with the entire league about their impending free agent clients -- begins. Bell will be an unrestricted free agent in 2019 provided the Steelers don't make him a franchise or transition player during the designation period, which runs from Feb. 19 to March 5 in 2019.
The procedures outlined in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) dictate that Bell's third franchise 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. A player can only be franchised three times during his career. Assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million neighborhood, the quarterback number should be right around $25 million. The third and final franchise tag at approximately $25 million would be too cost prohibitive. It would operate like the exclusive one Bell received this year. Bell would be prevented from soliciting an offer sheet from other NFL teams.
The Steelers placing a transition designation on Bell is a realistic possibility according to CBS Sports Insider Jason LaCanfora. This number would be the greater of 120 percent of Bell's prior year salary or the sum of the transition numbers at running back (average of 10 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 approximately $9.2 million if the 2019 salary cap is set in the $190 million range, Bell's previous salary would be applicable. The precise language in the CBA defining the prior year's salary calculation dictates that the 120 percent will be measured from the $12.12 million franchise tag Bell played under in 2017 because he is sitting out this season. Bell's transition number would be same $14.544 million as his current franchise tag.
The Steelers have made the most extensive use of the transition player designation in recent years. Offensive tackle Max Starks and outside linebacker Jason Worilds played under the designation in 2008 and 2014.
A transition tag would only provide the Steelers a right to match an offer sheet from another team. There wouldn't be any draft choice compensation, like with the non-exclusive franchise tag, if the Steelers didn't exercise their matching rights. Although the Steelers would be vulnerable to an offer sheet with a structure that isn't consistent with their other contracts, it would be a way for both sides to find out what Bell is worth.
Creating an offer sheet that the Steelers wouldn't want to match would be pretty easy given how Pittsburgh structures contracts. The Steelers would likely rescind the tag with a high degree of certainty that an unpalatable offer sheet was forthcoming, just like the Dolphins did with defensive end Olivier Vernon in 2016. Bell would become an unrestricted free agent where the Steelers could get a compensatory draft pick in 2020 with him going to another team. Pittsburgh would need a big enough net loss of players through 2019 free agency with Bell signing one of the NFL's most lucrative running back contracts to receive a maximum third-round compensatory pick.
Bell might be a luxury, not a necessity, in Pittsburgh thanks to James Conner, who is making $578,000 this year. The 2017 third-round pick has emerged during Bell's absence. Conner is third in the NFL with 771 rushing yards. His 10 rushing touchdowns are third most in the league. Connor is on pace for 2,059 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards). It's a total Bell topped only in 2014, when he had 2,215 yards from scrimmage.
The Steelers are getting comparable production from Connor for approximately 1/25th of Bell's franchise tender. Connor's rookie contract runs through the 2020 season, with $668,000 and $758,000 salaries next year and the year after.
Bell's expected contract demands
Bell's exact financial demands were never disclosed. He reportedly wanted the same $17 million per year that wide receiver Antonio Brown got from the Steelers in a contract extension last year during the early part of the offseason. The three-time All-Pro alluded to needing $15 million per year in a rap song last year.
Bell will surely be looking to supplant Todd Gurley as the NFL's highest-paid running back. Gurley's deal with the Rams averages $14.375 million per year, and his $45 million in guarantees are the most ever in a running back contract. David Johnson's recent three-year, $39 million extension from the Cardinals has a veteran running back contract record $24,682,500 fully guaranteed at signing.
Potential 2019 suitors
Bell, who turns 27 in February, will be the most talented running back available in quite some time should he hit the open market. He has amassed yardage at a historic and unprecedented rate. Bell's 129 yards from scrimmage per game are the most in NFL history (minimum of 50 career games). Hall of Famer Jim Brown is second with 125.5 per game. Nobody has ever been better at picking up yards during the first five seasons of an NFL career. Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson are right behind Bell with 126 and 125.7 yards per game.
Bell doesn't necessarily need to generate a lot of interest in free agency for a big payday. It only takes one team to view him as a game-changing talent. Teams with significant cap room and a quarterback on a low-cost rookie contract might be most intrigued by Bell. The 2019 salary cap should be right around $190 million if the growth rate of the cap from recent years continues.
New York Jets
The Jets could have in excess of $90 million of cap space when the 2019 league year starts next March after factoring in a full complement of 51 players counting under offseason accounting rules and carrying over existing cap space. Bilal Powell is in a contract year. The Jets signed Isaiah Crowell to a three-year, $12 million contract in March. Crowell's presence shouldn't have an impact on a pursuit of Bell even though he set a Jets single-game franchise record with 219 rushing yards against the Broncos in Week 5. Quarterback Sam Darnold, the third-overall pick in this year's NFL draft, is locked into a rookie contract through the 2021 season averaging just over $7.5 million per year.
Bell would be the type of dual-threat running back the Texans haven't had since Arian Foster during the early part of the decade. The addition of Bell would likely come at Lamar Miller's expense; 2019 is final year of the four-year, $26 million contract Miller signed in 2016. The Texans are projected to have slightly over $73 million cap room in 2019. Another $6.25 million of cap space would be gained from cutting Miller next offseason. Deshaun Watson is in his second year as quarterback. The Texans wouldn't have to address the 2017 12th-overall pick's contract until 2020 at the earliest.
The Ravens could be a team in transition next year. Head coach John Harbaugh is on the hot seat, with Baltimore dropping to 4-5 after losing four of its last five games. Lamar Jackson wasn't taken with the 32nd overall pick this year to sit behind Joe Flacco at quarterback indefinitely. Alex Collins, who will be a restricted free agent in 2019, has regressed after nearly gaining 1,000 yards on the ground last season. The Ravens should have a little more than $38.5 million of cap room in the offseason. Parting ways with Flacco would open up an additional $10.5 of cap space.
Bell is the type of offensive toy Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who is the main powerbroker in the organization, would love to have. The two-year contract of 32-year-old Marshawn Lynch will be coming off the books next year. The Raiders should have close to $70 million in space because of Gruden's drastic roster overhaul. Currently, there are only 31 players under contract for 2019.
The Colts are projected to have approximately $117 million in cap room, an NFL best, next offseason. Only two teams have fewer than the almost $115 million of 2019 cap commitments that the Colts have. The Colts are also on track to have the second-most carryover cap room, with slightly over $50 million. Indianapolis' running back trio of 2017 fourth round pick Marlon Mack, 2018 fourth round pick Nyheim Hines and 2018 fifth round pick Jordan Wilkins has been surprisingly effective.
Green Bay Packers
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst is much more aggressive in free agency than Ted Thompson, his predecessor, ever was. He will be armed with almost $47.5 million of cap space in the offseason. A lack of guaranteed money in Pittsburgh's offer was problematic for Bell. Green Bay structures veteran contracts like Pittsburgh does, except with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The same issue would likely exist with the Packers and make Green Bay an unappealing destination. Aaron Jones has given Green Bay's running game a boost lately. He is leading the NFL with 6.8 yards per carry.
The Eagles were rumored to be in the market for a running back prior to the Oct. 30 trading deadline. Pursuing Bell will be a challenge because the Eagles have the NFL's second-most 2019 cap commitments at $208.579 million, with 44 players under contract. There are natural exit points with several of Philadelphia's contracts. For example, declining the 2019 options on quarterback Nick Foles and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan while also releasing left tackle Jason Peters, would collectively create $36.3 million of cap space, leaving Philadelphia almost $20 million under the cap.