Three days before a playoff game isn’t the time when teams have to think much about roster management, but Le’Veon Bell brought it to the forefront Thursday when he met with reporters in the locker room.
Bell made it perfectly clear that he has no interest in playing under the franchise tag again in 2018 — so much so, that he’d be fine with retiring from football after turning 26 in February.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I would definitely consider it,” Bell said, via ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Bell played under the franchise tag in 2017 after failing to come to terms on a long-term contract with the Steelers in the offseason, despite coming close. He sat out all of training camp and preseason because of his discontent with the tag, which paid him $12.12 million but offered no long-term security for the running back.
If it was applied again in the 2018 offseason, Bell would be due 120 percent of his 2017 salary — coming in at about $14.54 million.
Why doesn’t Bell want the franchise tag? The issue players have with the franchise tag is that it offers big pay for a single season but doesn’t give players the opportunity to lock down a long-term deal while their value is at its peak.
For Bell, a Pro Bowler in three of the last four seasons, getting paid year-to-year is a significant roll of the dice. While $14.54 million in 2018 is great value for any player — especially a running back — he could be left a smaller contract in 2019 if he suffered an injury next year.
“Just get the numbers straight, exactly where we want them. I’m not going to settle for anything,” Bell said. “I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at.”
Bell led the NFL in rushing attempts with 321 and contributed 85 receptions. During the 2017 offseason, he told Fowler that he wanted to be paid like the Steelers’ No. 1 running back and the team’s No. 2 receiver.
The Steelers probably don’t want to franchise tag him either. Bell is an incredibly important player for the Pittsburgh offense, so the team will want to do what it can to make sure he stays in black and gold. But it may actually be cheaper for the Steelers to just give him a sizable contract rather than another franchise tag.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the deal that almost got Bell to sign on the dotted line last summer was a five-year contract that would’ve averaged $12 million per year with $30 million in the first two years.
That ultimately didn’t get the job done. Bell has previously said he wants $15 million a year — although he backed off that claim — so a number closer to $13 or $14 million per year might be able to get the job done.
It would also remove some offseason drama for the Steelers, make a star happy, and remove the possibility that he leaves or retires.
Can the Steelers afford to pay Bell? That’s where things get dicey. Pittsburgh doesn’t have much room to work with in 2018, especially after giving Antonio Brown a five-year, $72.71 million deal last February.
The biggest question for the Steelers’ immediate financial future is how much longer Ben Roethlisberger hopes to play. He’s due to count $23.2 million against the salary cap in 2018 and 2019, although he’s already dropped a few hints that retirement could be on the horizon.
If Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers’ best hope at keeping their All-Pro running back is likely to give him a long-term deal where the more significant cap hits can be pushed into later seasons. Hitting him with the franchise tag again would just leave the team in bad shape and force it to make cuts to get under the salary cap.
Would Bell actually retire? With it looking so unlikely that the Steelers have the resources to afford giving him the franchise tag, he probably doesn’t have to consider it. But he certainly sounds like he’d be fine with retirement.
“I’ve made a lot of money, I’m happy where I’m at; I’ve got a good family — I don’t really need to play football,” Bell told Fowler.
“I don’t necessarily care about the money aspect of it. I just want to be valued where I’m at. If I am playing this game, I want to set standards for all the other running backs behind me, like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, guys like that. I’m a guy they can kind of look at. I feel I can do that. I’m in a position where I can do that, and I’m going to do it.”
That’d be a sad ending for the Steelers if the team lost a spectacular running back because he retired after just five seasons in the NFL. They probably won’t have to worry about that, though.
This is all business for later. For now the focus for the Steelers is on beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday to advance to the AFC Championship. With talk about his contract situation bubbling Thursday, Bell went to Twitter to make sure everyone knew what his priorities are:
I’m trying to win a super bowl…I can care less about what happens after this season…my biggest thing I’m focused on is this team I’m on right now, playing for/with my brothers, bringing back a 7th ring! what happens next year is irrelevant to my goals
— Le’Veon Bell (@L_Bell26) January 11, 2018
Still, his comments to Fowler mean an interesting offseason is on the way for the Steelers.