As the middle of March rapidly approaches, we draw nearer and nearer to the official start of the 2019 calendar year for the NFL, and with that the start of free agency. In other words, we figure to be heading toward the very end of the relationship between the Pittsburgh Steelers and running back Le’Veon Bell after six years—five of them together.
A 2013 second-round pick, Bell was made an instant starter and had a breakout season in year two, establishing a franchise record of over 2200 yards from scrimmage en route to the All-Pro list. He would also feature as an All-Pro in 2016 and 2017, with 2015 being truncated due to injury.
He played the 2017 season under the franchise tag, but chose not to do so a second time last year, instead foregoing the season altogether in preparation for unrestricted free agency in 2019—at least that’s the plan, unless the Steelers place the transition tag on him.
But even regardless of the rumors around what the Steelers might do, we know that it goes beyond Pittsburgh at this point. As Nate Burleson said, “sometimes the story is bigger than the organization. Even if [the Steelers[ say, ‘alright, we’ll transition tag him and we’ll trade him and work it out with his agent’, still, we’re all gonna be saying, ‘what’s going on with Le’Veon Bell?’”.
Of course, there is a lot of noise surrounding Pittsburgh right now, with Antonio Brown being the very squeaky wheel, so much so that even Bell’s story often seems to be taking a backseat—until he Tweet-reacts with an emoji, of course.
“The noise is going to be louder than whatever Big Ben is doing, whatever Tomlin’s doing, JuJu, because Le’Veon Bell is probably the biggest mystery in football right now”, Burleson said. “A few years ago, [he was] the best running back in football. Since then, we’ve seen some great running backs come in and take his place”.
Since Bell was drafted in 2013, we have seen the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and now Saquon Barkley step up and compete for the title of best running back in the game, along with Alvin Kamara and a couple of other honorable mentions. Bell’s skill set is becoming less and less scarce.
The question is how that will affect his market. The Steelers were willing to pay him $70 million over five seasons, according to reports, on a deal that never got signed. He probably expects to sign a deal with at least $30-40 million in full guarantees over a similar length of time.
It’s been a long time since a skill position player has actually held out for a season, so it will be interesting to see how the market treats him as he comes back from a year out of football. There are mixed opinions over whether he will be fresh or rusty, but the asking price to find out will be prohibitive for most teams.