Here is an interesting fact that Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette just raised: of the six players that the Pittsburgh Steelers previously used a franchise tag on, none of them actually finished their careers in Pittsburgh. In fact, of those that went on to sign a long-term deal, most did not even make it to the end of their contract.
This is a useful perspective to keep in mind while discussing the current situation with Le’Veon Bell, as well as the instability of the concept of a ‘franchise’ player in general. It’s very rare, if a player continues to play long enough, that there never comes a point in time in which his cost outweighs his production by the time he retires.
Using Dave Bryan’s handy franchise and transition tag history that he posted back in February, we see that the Steelers have used the franchise tag eight times on seven different players, and the transition tag twice on two different players, with eight players in total. In addition to Bell’s two franchise tags, Max Starks also received both the transition and franchise tags.
And of every player in that group, only Jason Worilds actually finished his career with the Steelers, and that requires a pretty big caveat. After he was given the transition tag heading into his fifth season, he played out the tag and ended up choosing to retire to pursue religious interests. So he only played five years, and never signed a second long-term deal after his rookie contract.
Pittsburgh’s greatest success with the franchise tag came early on. Tight end Eric Green and safety Carnell Lake both were tagged and ended up signing long-term deals. They both completed those deals, but they also ended up playing with other teams after those deals were completed.
On the other hand, Starks, Jason Gildon, Jeff Reed, and LaMarr Woodley all failed to finish their contracts. Gildon, Starks, and Woodley signed long-term deals and were released within three years. All of them played with other teams afterward. Reed was released in the middle of the season in which he was playing under the tag because he was struggling.
So here are the facts: the Steelers have applied the tag to eight different players, seven before Bell. Of those seven, five did end up signing long-term contracts, but only two of them finished their deals, and neither of those players finished their playing careers with Pittsburgh.
Starks is the only precedent in the history of the franchise of a player being tagged multiple times, thought with two different types of tags. In his case, he did end up signing a long-term deal, which was struck in June.
Bell has said on many occasions that he loves playing for the Steelers and with his teammates and wants to spend his entire career here, but at least for the moment, that doesn’t appear likely to happen. And the history of players tagged by the team doesn’t favor that outcome either.