Le’Veon Bell’s decision to forgo $14.5M in guaranteed salary in 2019 and skip the entire season sets up an unprecedented foray into free agency this spring, with Bell’s market value the source of considerable debate.
Conversations with a handful of NFL general managers and salary-cap experts – some who would have a need for a running back of Bell’s stature and some who would not be in the market for him – revealed what could be a more tepid response to him. Bell would be an unrestricted free agent in 2019 unless the Steelers place a tag on him of some sort; sources said the team has informed the running back it plans to utilize the transition tag on him in 2019.
The designation would allow Bell to sign an offer sheet with any NFL team, with the Steelers given the right to match. Some NFL team executives believe Bell will have a difficult time exceeding the $14.5M salary he would have earned in 2019, much less the $21M fully guaranteed that Bell would have secured had he signed the long-term deal Pittsburgh had on the table in July. Even some within the NFLPA, who at various times throughout this two-year saga advised Bell’s team that they believed the best course of action was to sign the offers the Steelers had put forth, are skeptical if Bell will truly be able to command $16M-$17M per year on a long-term deal, with upwards of $40M guaranteed.
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Teams commonly linked with Bell in the media include the Jets, Colts, Eagles and Bucs. The Steelers believed throughout the season that the Eagles would be their best bet to trade Bell, but Philadelphia cooled on that prospect as the deadline approached and utilized funds to acquire receiver Golden Tate’s salary instead. One could make a case the Steelers’ rival, the Ravens, could be in the market for an elite back given a potential rebuild around raw quarterback Lamar Jackson and given Baltimore’s struggles in the run game this season.
But at what price?
One NFL cap guru who has been involved with deals in the running back market in recent years suggested: “I think he can get $12M-$13M a year, maybe, with two years essentially guaranteed. But is that enough to keep the Steelers from matching?”
One personnel executive whose team has been linked in the media as a potential landing spot for Bell in free agency strongly cautioned against it. “That’s not how I see us building our football team,” he said. “The media hype train about how much money Bell is going to make is not in line with what his market will actually be. How many teams are going to bring him in, as one of their highest-paid players, into a locker room that might not be as experienced as Pittsburgh’s? I really don’t think it’s that many. There are some major character concerns there.”
A general manager of another team that has been oft-linked to Bell given their current roster and their abundance of cap space in 2019 said: “I’m just telling you, that’s not where we’re going to spend our money. We have other needs and I don’t see that guy as a fit in our locker room. It’s not worth the risk. He’s not going to get what (Todd) Gurley got, and I think he’s going to be disappointed in his guarantee.”
Of course, it makes sense for executives to try to deflate a player’s market and expected value this time of year, and obviously it only takes one fully committed owner for Bell to break the bank. But there are concerns about Bell’s past suspension and injury history, the way the Steelers players turned on him this season, how well Pittsburgh’s offense has performed without him, and the overall depreciation of the running back market in recent years, with rare exception (Gurley). His willingness to punt on the 2019 season will be something front offices have to work through as well. (“Who is to say he doesn’t do the same thing to me after his third year here, when all of the guaranteed money is gone, and the bonuses are paid?” said one general manager who doesn’t need a starting running back but has talked to several who do.)
“Does he get $15M a year on the open market – I don’t think so,” said one NFL cap executive who has done an exhaustive study of the running back market. “Maybe he averages $13M a year, but I don’t see him coming close to re-setting the market.”
With the Steelers already saving nearly $15M in actual payroll this season by Bell skipping out his weekly $850,000 paycheck, and with the team also aware that Conner’s pounding, violent running style could lead to further injury, it is not out of the question the team would match offers within reason, sources said. Securing Bell into the future would also allow the Steelers to deal him down the road, if they do an extension for Conner in a few years, hypothetically, and potentially recoup a decent return (they get no draft-pick compensation if they fail to match an offer for Bell while on the transition tag). Regardless, this saga is not yet over, and the ramifications of Bell’s unique stance will be more clear by the scouting combine in February, when the groundwork for much offseason work is put in place.
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