The only think that we know for sure about the future of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell is that we don’t know what it holds. The two parties had a mid-July deadline to come to terms on a long-term contract offer. Once that passed, he became fated to play the 2018 season under the one-year franchise tender.
That means that the Steelers will have a window between the conclusion of their season and three days before the official start of the new league year in 2019 to be exclusive negotiators with Bell before he is slated to hit the open market, where all 32 teams will be able to bid for his services.
Rich Cimini believes that the New York Jets could be one of the teams set to go after him. Among the points in favor of that theory that he addressed is their history of going after players who were tagged twice (signing Trumaine Johnson, but losing out on Kirk Cousins); the fact that they have the most salary cap space projected for 2019; and the reality that neither Bilal Powell nor Isaiah Crowell are long-term commitments.
Depending on what reports you choose to believe, the Steelers offered Bell a long-term contract possibly for five years that averaged either $14 or $15 million per season in average salary per year. It was also reported to include just a $10 million signing bonus as the only full guarantee.
But the Jets signed Johnson to a five-year deal worth $72.5 million this offseason, which included $34 million in fully guaranteed money. That consisted of a $20 million signing bonuses and guaranteed salaries of $6 million and $8 million in the first two years of his deal.
If the Steelers were to have offered that exact same deal to Bell, my hunch is that he would have accepted it. But Pittsburgh takes a hard-and-fast approach with certain aspects of dealing with the salary cap, and that includes not fully guaranteeing salaries beyond the first year.
In the meantime, the two-time first-team All-Pro will play out the 2018 season under a franchise tag worth $14.55 million, and will be slated to become the highest-paid running back in NFL history during the free agency period next year.
The largest deal ever signed by a running back was Adrian Peterson’s six-year, $85.28 million contract agreed to in 2011. His average percentage of the team’s salary cap over that span was over 10 percent. Chris Johnson also signed a deal that same year averaging nearly $13.5 million.
Other contracts worth discussing include the deals signed by two Hall of Famers, Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson. Faulk signed a seven-year, $45.2 million contract in 1999. While that only averages about 6.5 million per season, that was against a salary cap of just $58.4 million. Tomlinson signed a contract averaging $8 million per season in 2004, at a time when the salary cap was roughly $80 million.
Bell would need to be given nearly $18 million per season in order to rival the contracts signed by these players in terms of salary cap equivalence. The running back position is essentially the only one in the league that has not risen roughly proportional to the increase in the salary cap to date, but that is on the verge of changing.