It’s officially hot as all heck outside, which can only mean one thing: the Pittsburgh Steelers have returned to Latrobe, PA for training camp. After a fairly boring off season, the sight of tackling dummies and freshly mowed grass in Latrobe is a welcomed one. Though the running drills have begun, there is a key member of the Steelers offense and integral member to their potential Super Bowl aspirations missing. This, of course, being franchise running back Le’Veon Bell.
The 4:00 PM July 17th deadline came and went without a new contract for Bell and the Steelers. This, despite reports to the contrary, was somewhat expected. Though official contract details were never officially released, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com had reported a contract averaging $14 million over 3 seasons, with $30 million over two seasons. Ian Rapoport, also of NFL.com, reported the contract would have averaged between $12 and $13 million over “several years, four or five years.” The actual figures themselves, notably the guaranteed money over the first two seasons, are incredibly important, but more on that later. For now, all we know for certain is Bell has not yet reported to camp and likely will not until late August, opting to gamble on himself and play on the franchise tender. Though not unheard of, it’s a risky gamble because of the position Bell plays. Running backs are seen as replaceable assets; a revolving door of players that can be plugged in and played, particularly behind offensive lines that possess the athleticism and talent of the current Steelers line.
Though to be fair, very few, if any, running backs in the league possess the talent and patience of Le’Veon Bell.
IMPORTANCE ON OFFENSE
Everyone understands what Bell means to this offense. If not, a quick look back at the AFC Championship Game between the Steelers and the New England Patriots should provide a refresher. Bell posted 6 carries for 20 yards, albeit only four of these carries were completed by a healthy Bell. When in the game, Bell was a factor and forced the Patriots to play a specific defensive scheme because of the threat he poses by simply being on the field.
The next 14 carries by De’Angelo Williams netted a total of 34 yards, or for a grand total of 2.4 YPC. Not to slight Williams as he was a important addition with Bell suspended to start the season, but the effect of Bell’s absence became painfully obvious with his departure. With Bell out, the offense became completely one-dimensional and played directly into the strength of the Patriots. For a team that began the game down two of their top three receiving threats – wide receiver Martavis Bryant and tight end Ladarius Green – losing their star running back may have been the final nail in the coffin.
Bell’s importance on this offense hasn’t changed. If this Steelers team is to have legitimate championship aspirations, Le’Veon Bell is an integral component of this. His patient running style perfectly complements the Steelers’ zone blocking scheme. As much as the Steelers offense runs through quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, Bell is just as important to the efficiency and productivity to the group as a whole. Though only playing in 12 games in the 2016 season, Bell posted over 1200 rushing yards and caught 75 passes for over 600 receiving yards. The total yardage figure posted by Bell was an eye-popping 1884, averaging 157 yards from scrimmage per game.
The argument can be made that, after Roethlisberger, Bell is the most important and pivotal piece on the offense. Perhaps the entire team. As one of the last true three-down running backs that possesses the ability to split out into the slot and become a legitimate receiving threat, Bell is a rare breed of running back that deserves to be compensated as such.
HYBRID vs. VALUE
Le’Veon Bell appears to know his importance to the offense. Turning down an offer which could’ve been over $60 million isn’t easy to walk away from, but Bell appears to feel like the offer didn’t adequately compensate for his skill set. He is also far from the first player to feel like his positional value, or lack thereof, may be dragging down his compensation.
Then-New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham attempted to argue that he should be compensated as a wide receiver because the snap count he had playing on the boundary. While ultimately unsuccessful, Graham’s attempt at setting a new positional standard did indeed create precedence for other players seeking to be compensated more toward the position they deemed best suited their skill set and value to the organization. As NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks points out, Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu argued about his hybridization in the defensive back field, noting he could not fairly be marked down simply as a safety or cornerback. This makes the case for Bell being pigeonholed as a running back seem not just unfair, but frankly untrue.
With Bryant suspended the entirety of the 2016 season, Bell became the number two receiving target on the Steelers in 2016. Le’Veon Bell’s 616 receiving yards were second behind Brown. Bear in mind, Bell only played in three-quarters of the season. Extrapolating these numbers across an entire season and Bell would’ve reached over 800 receiving yards.
Wide receivers Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates both notched below 600 receiving yards and had 28 and 49 fewer targets, respectfully, than the star running back. It’s safe to assume that Bell is comfortably Ben’s most reliable option outside of Brown.
The question then becomes: what exactly is Bell?
It’s safe to assume that Bell is more than simply a running back. But, Graham is more than a tight end and Mathieu is far more than just a corner back or safety. Though precedent has been set for Bell to make his case, he’s ultimately arguing from a position of weakness.
SITTING ON POCKET 2’s
The issue for Bell is actually quite simple: he’s bluffing without holding any cards.
The importance of the figures released by Pelissero tie into the franchise tag, both in 2017 and 2018. Operating under the assumption that the contract details of $43 million over 3 years with $30 million over the first 2 seasons is indeed correct, Bell simply can’t win any negotiation period with the Steelers for the next calendar year.
Le’Veon Bell will indeed play under the franchise tag for 2017, which means he earns a fully-guaranteed salary of $12.12 million. As stated previously, Bell is worth every penny and then some to the organization. It gets a little trickier when looking at 2018, however. Franchising Bell again in 2018 would guarantee him over $14.5 million. This brings the total money earned in 2017 and 2018 to over $26.6 million. Before balking at the number, remember that this is still less than what the Steelers had allegedly offered him. This point can’t be stressed enough. The chatter of Bell gambling on himself in 2017 is indeed true, but it is far more than just 2017. By declining the contract, Bell is also gambling on himself in 2018 as the Steelers are set to save more than $3 million by simply franchising Bell again.
For the sake of clarity, we don’t know if the $30 million over the course of the first two seasons was fully guaranteed, but you can safely bet that a substantial chunk of it was. Even if the entire figure wasn’t guaranteed, you can assume that the Steelers would have no qualms about paying a few extra million to ensure Bell is once again part of the organization in 2018.
It goes deeper than even this, however.
As far as I know, there is no rule preventing the Steelers from using the transition tag for Bell in 2019, assuming he plays under both franchise tenders in 2017 and 2018. This would allow Bell to negotiate with other teams, but also allows the Steelers to match whatever offer Bell were to receive. In all likelihood, this is exactly what would happen. Even if another organization were to front-load a contract for Bell, the Steelers have shown to be creative with their cap before. This would ink Bell to a long-term contract with the Steelers after three years of negotiating and would be, once again, on the Steelers’ preferred terms. This is assuming that in 2017 and 2018 remain injury or suspension free for Bell and, because of his history with both, this is far from guaranteed.
General Manager Kevin Colbert and the Rooney family are not going to be bullied or pressured into a contract for any player, especially one in which they seemingly control all of the leverage for. I can’t imagine that either side would appreciate or want the circumstances I laid out to happen, but it is a reality nonetheless. Le’Veon Bell is at the high stakes table here sitting on pocket 2’s and going all-in.
It’s tough to say where the two sides are heading next. It is unlikely that we see Le’Veon Bell at training camp before late August. An extension can’t be negotiated until the end of the 2017 season which gives both sides the opportunity to revisit the topic in February and put any remaining hard feelings to the side.