By Monday at 4 p.m. EST, well know if the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed running back Le’Veon Bell to a contract extension as that’s the league’s deadline this year when it comes to players who were issued franchise tags this offseason. As you can imagine, a lot of NFL analysts don’t believe a deal between the Steelers and Bell will ultimately get done and with very good reason.
Personally, I hope a deal gets done and it’s mostly related to me liking contract numbers and the overall art of deals getting done. I love math and especially the kind of math that doesn’t include letters of the alphabet. With that said, however, I also think Bell is a great running back and while he’s had his problems staying healthy and keeping himself out of trouble with the league so far during his career, I believe he has at least three more highly productive years left in him.
Now, Bell’s situation this year is a unique one and it’s related primarily to the position he plays. As you all know by now, the running back market has taken a huge hit recently due to releases and it effectively resulted in LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills being the highest paid at his position at $8.01 million when it comes to current deals longer than one year. Bell’s $12.12 million franchise tag amount is obviously $4 million more than that.
Now that Bell has been issued the franchise tag, it’s logical to think he and his agent Adisa Bakari will push for a new contract that not only averages at least $12.12 million over the length of it, but one that will also pay the running back no less than $27 million over the course of the first two years of the deal as that number is slightly higher than this year’s tag amount plus a potential $14-plus million tag next offseason.
If Bell was as good of a pass rusher as he is a running back, the Steelers probably wouldn’t balk at giving him such a deal. Remember the deal that former linebacker LaMarr Woodley received several years ago after he was issued the franchise tag? While it’s easy for me to point to that, it’s worth noting that that deal was very much in line with edge-rusher market at the time.
Bell, however, is a running back and unlike pass rushers, he has numerous players attempting to tackle him at least 20 times a game and sometimes close to 30. In short, he runs a greater risk of getting injured. Sure, I know every player is just one play away from having their NFL career end abruptly, but you should still see my overall point just the same. That extra injury risk combined with Bell’s injury history sure makes it tough decision when it comes to giving him guaranteed money and in the case of the Steelers, specifically, that’s normally just a signing bonus and nothing more. In short, giving Bell a big enough signing bonus to entice him to sign a long-term deal could ultimately backfire in the form of future dead money.
Now, back to that $27 million over the next two years aspect. As a few of you I believe have wisely pointed out in the past, if Bell and his agent are dead set on the running back earning $27 million over the course of the next two years, the Steelers would probably be smart to just let him play under the tag in 2017 and possible 2018 as well, assuming he’s healthy and performing at a high level. The only drawback in doing that is the fact that his tag amounts will be his salary cap charges. While the team appears set to easily handle a $12.12 million Bell cap charge this season, a $14-plus million cap charge in 2018 might be harder to carry and especially if the team is able to ultimately work out new deals with defensive end Stephon Tuitt and tackle Alejandro Villanueva later on this summer. With that noted, a $14-plus million can be absorbed and worked with in some form or fashion even if includes restructuring other players and kicking the proverbial can down the road. In short, you do whatever you need to do to keep great players.
So, enough about what I think. As many of you well know by now, I like to follow the work of former NFL agent Joel Corry when it comes to contracts and salary cap information and have even had him on the podcast several times over the years. On Tuesday, Corry was on NBC Sports Radio and was asked by show host Mark Malone what kind of chances he gives the Steelers and Bell ultimately working out a long-term contract extension by the July 17 deadline.
“Fifty-fifty,” Corry said. “It’s a hard deal to do. He’s a special back and typically you take care of special players. He’s born five years too late to really take advantage of the running back market right now. The highest paid running back is $8 million per year – LeSean McCoy, that’s on a veteran deal. So, getting him where running backs have been isn’t going to happen. It’s not going to be an Adrian Peterson type deal at $14 million a year. Even getting to $10 million a year might be a major accomplishment. He’s a special back and hopefully he’s willing to settle for something in the $10 million dollar per year range. The Steelers should go there for a guy like him.”
In my honest opinion, the Steelers should at least be willing to go as high as $10 million a year with Bell and maybe just ever so slightly higher. With that said, Woodley’s deal that I referenced earlier in this post averaged $10.25 million per year. However, that deal paid Woodley $27 million through the first two years and a similar or same deal for Bell wouldn’t result in any cash savings versus tagging him two straight seasons. In case you’re curious, or may have forgot, Woodley was given a $13 million signing bonus as part of that total six-year deal that he signed and was paid $18.1 million in total in the first year of it as he was also given a $1.1 million base salary and a $4 million roster bonus.
Basically, you can now probably see why Corry thinks getting Bell signed to even a $10 million a year deal might be problematic and especially being as he’s already wearing the tag with the potential of wearing it again in 2018.
Now, Bell not signing a new deal could ultimately be problematic for him as well and especially if he were to have a drop-off in performance, or God forbid, he suffer a serious injury. With that said, I’m guessing he would provide himself with some sort of extra injury insurance protection should he ultimately not sign a new contract with the Steelers and thus be forced to play under the $12.12 million tag in 2017. Still, his worst case scenario is the fact that he will earn $12.12 million in 2017 and thus I doubt he’ll have problems eating out every now and again.
While not an NFL front office executive, Corry let it be known on Tuesday how he would treat the running back position if he were in charge and I thought it was worth including in this post.
“Personally, what I would do with the running back position is one; I’d never spend a high first-round pick on one,” Corry said. “That’s just not great value to me. I would let that guy play through his rookie contract. If I had to, stick a tag on him once. Draft other backs in the interim – churn them – never pay a running back on a second contract. Run that guy into the ground during his first contract and let his diminishing years with a bunch of mileage on it be somebody else’s problem.”
While that sounds sort of cold, Corry makes solid points.
Throughout this entire process with Bell I have been optimistic that a deal will ultimately get done with him and that is perhaps mostly related to my aforementioned selfish nature of liking to see all deals get done because of my fascination with the associated math, the salary cap and so forth. I love to overthink things at times and especially when it comes to contracts. After doing some deeper self-examination, reading and listening, I guess you could say I’m less optimistic about a deal ultimately getting done with Bell by Monday evening than I was just a few days ago. If, however, one does get done, I suspect the average yearly value of it will be a lot closer to $10 million than $12 million. Additionally, I think Bell will ultimately have to settle on getting a lot less than $27 million over the course of the first two years.
In summation, I think Corry put it best when it comes to Bell. It’s a hard deal to do. Now we’ll wait a few more days to see if one can ultimately get done. I can’t wait to plow through the details if that happens, but with that said, I’m prepared to transition right into what might ultimately happen next offseason should it not.