Within the next five weeks we’ll know if the Pittsburgh Steelers have placed the transition tag on running back Le’Veon Bell. Whether or not they decide to do that, however, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, however, because barring the Steelers signing Bell to a long-term contract prior to the start of the new league year in March, he’ll be able to shop his services to other NFL teams either as a transition tagged player or as a full-fledged unrestricted agent. With that five week window now upon us, speculation is ramping up as to not only what team Bell will wind up playing for in 2019, but for how much as well.
In a recent post on Pro Football Focus that attempts to project the offseason value of the deemed top-10 most expensive free agents in 2019, Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap predicts that Bell will eventually sign a four-year, $60 million contract that includes $33 million in guarantees. That math easily breaks down to $15 million per season. He explained his reasoning for coming up with that set of figures for the running back, who decided to sit out the entire 2018 season instead of playing for $14.544 million franchise tag the Steelers issued him last offseason.
“Bell comes with all kinds of red flags. He has had past injuries. He has had off the field suspensions. Nobody knows what kind of shape he is in. He has a lot of miles on his tires from his use in Pittsburgh. But he is dynamic and the best offensive talent that will be available this year. Given the amount of cap space a few teams have this year and how desperate those teams may be expecting someone to match his price but with a backloaded contract to give the team some added protection,” explained Fitzgerald.
It’s hard to go against Fitzgerald’s projection and especially with him being one the most revered independent salary cap and contract experts on the internet. If his projection winds up being off, it probably won’t be by too much.
As far as where Bell might end up signing with, it really is anybody’s guess at this point. That said, it’s probably easy to narrow the list of teams who might be really interested in signing the Steelers former second-round draft to about 10 or fewer. That latest popular potential 2019 destination for Bell appears to be the Houston Texans and Dan Graziano of ESPN.com recently and boldly predicted that’s the team the running back will sign with this offseason and he explained his reasoning why he thinks that’ll be the case.
“Bell didn’t just sit out a whole season to take a penny less than the four-year, $57.5 million contract Gurley signed with the Rams last summer. And in spite of that missed season, Bell will have a market for his services. The Jets, 49ers and Texans are all in it, but Houston wins out by selling Bell on what he can do in an offense that features Deshaun Watson at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins at wide receiver.
“The Texans must — and likely will — address the offensive line in free agency and the draft. But Bell is what my colleague Bill Polian calls a “BYOB” back (bring your own blocking). He can help elevate the Texans’ offense to where it needs to be to compete for an AFC title,” explained Graziano.
The Texans, according to TexansCap.com, currently have $63,863,117 in estimated 2019 salary cap space and that’s obviously way more than enough to sign Bell with, should they choose to go after him after the start of the new league year. In fact, that’s so much available salary cap space that they could probably easily put together a contract offer to Bell that includes a very high first-year base salary in lieu of a larger signing bonus. They could even probably fully guarantee the first two years of the contract without issue and in the process easily get to the $33 million that Fitzgerald speculated the running back will get this offseason.
For what it’s worth, that same Texans salary cap website, which is easily the best one on the internet, has Bell’s estimated upcoming free agent contract that he’ll sign pegged at four-years, $58 million with $22 million in guarantees. The site also believes that Bell could wind up being a realistic free agent target of the Texans as well and they have explained why that is.
“Three weeks ago you would have been unable to convince me Houston should even look at signing Bell. Bell is looking for a very large contract, similar to Todd Gurley, one that would possibly pay him as the highest paid running back in the league. It is difficult to determine if Houston would even consider paying a running back that much money given the long depressed monetary value of the position. However Bell does bring that dynamic three down player attribute the team could use to give the offense a huge kick. For the sake of this exercise we will assume Bell has remained in game day shape; and with a year of rest Bell should be fresh and ready to go despite a large number of touches in the previous years in Pittsburgh. What remains to be seen is will Bell have the market he expects when it comes to contract value. Make no mistake…a trio of Watson/Hopkins/Bell would push the Texans’ offense to unseen heights.”
Personally, I’m rooting for the Steelers to not transition tag Bell this offseason and also rooting for him to sign the richest free agent running back contract ever, because all of that could potentially wind up netting Pittsburgh a nice 2020 compensatory draft pick depending on how active and how high-profile they wind up being during this year’s free agent signing period. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine Bell re-signing with the Steelers this offseason even if he is given the transition tag within the next five weeks.