With the 2018 NFL Draft now just two weeks away, you can probably count on not hearing too much about Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and any contract negotiations between him and the organization for several more weeks. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said we could expect that to be the case a few weeks ago when he was in Florida for the annual league meetings and thus Bell’s contract situation will likely be on the back burner until the middle of May at the earliest.
The general consensus from fans and analysts currently seems to be that Bell won’t sign a contract extension by the July 16 deadline and thus ultimately bypass the team’s entire offseason program, training camp and preseason schedule just as he did last season. Assuming those assumptions wind up being correct, nearly everybody will expect 2018 to be Bell’s final season with the Steelers and with good reason. With that said, on Thursday, former NFL agent Joel Corry presented an interesting route that the Steelers could potentially take next offseason with Bell that would at least give them a tiny chance of retaining him for at least the 2019 season.
In his long post on Bell’s current contract situation with the Steelers, Corry offers up the idea that the organization could potentially use the transition tag on Bell next offseason in lieu of a third-consecutive franchise tag as one last-ditch effort to retain Bell’s services. As Corry points out, the transition tag for Bell next offseason would be $17,542,800, which is 120 percent more than his current franchise tag amount for 2018 of $14.544 million. That transition tag amount would also be much lower than next year’s quarterback franchise tag amount, which the Steelers would be on the hook for if they were to franchise tag Bell a third-consecutive time. Obviously, and as Corry makes sure to point out, using the transition tag in lieu of the franchise tag greatly opens up the chance that Bell would still wind up playing elsewhere in 2019.
“A transition tag would only provide the Steelers a right to match an offer sheet from another team,” Corry wrote on Thursday. “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 Bell’s true market value.”
Next offseason, Bell will turn 27 and his February birthday will be right around the same time the Steelers will need to decide if they want to place the transition tag on him. Obviously, how Bell plays in 2018 would play a big part in that decision-making process and if he has similar, or better, season in 2018 than he did in 2017, he might be worth $17.5 million to the Steelers for one more season. After all, the Steelers reportedly offered Bell a multi-year contract a year ago that would have paid the running back $42 million in the first three-years of the deal. Should they be able to retain him with a $17.54 million transition tag next offseason, and that certainly would be far from guaranteed to happen, Bell will have made short of $44.5 million from the Steelers over three seasons (2017-2019).
Now, at 27 years of age and assuming he’ll still be healthy and producing, there certainly might be another team willing to sign Bell to a huge offer sheet as part of a multi-year contract with enough guaranteed money involved that the Steelers won’t even consider matching it. Should that ultimately wind up being the case, Bell will be gone and the Steelers will receive zero compensation as part of the transition tag. However, if other NFL teams view Bell as too much of a free agent risk at 27 years of age in addition to his wear and tear, then the Steelers could have the services of the running back for at least one more season, but at $17.5 million. With that said, Bell still would likely refuse to sign the transition tag until right before the start of the 2019 regular season and that would then make three-consecutive years of him missing the entire offseason.
While Corry’s transition tag route with Bell would certainly be a legitimate option for the Steelers a little less than a year from now should they be unable to sign him to a new contract by July 16, it’s very hard to imagine the organization ultimately going that route. Assuming Bell doesn’t have a new contract in place by July 16, the Steelers would probably be best-served to let Bell walk-off to the highest free agent bidder next March in lieu of tying up over $17.5 million in salary cap space for several weeks via a very flimsy transition tag.
In short, no new deal for Bell by July 16 will almost certainly mean that 2018 will be his final season in Pittsburgh.
To sum up Corry’s post on Bell, and while he doesn’t believe it will ultimately happen, his suggestion is for the Steelers to explore trading Bell in the coming weeks to a team such as the Cleveland Browns with the goal being to obtain their fourth-overall selection in this year’s draft. Such a trade might put then put the Steelers in a position to draft former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. While Corry’s suggestion will likely please a lot of you reading this post, I can almost guarantee you that such a trade is not going to happen. Colbert has said as much this offseason and has stated that Bell will be a Steeler in 2018.