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Le’Veon Bell Is Trying to Single-Handedly Repair the Running Back Market

The Steelers have placed their star running back on the franchise tag for the second consecutive year—but the sixth-year pro is still looking for his long-term deal

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Last week, during the NFL combine, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert expressed hope that the team could reach a long-term deal with running back Le’Veon Bell before the NFL’s franchise tag deadline on Tuesday. That didn’t happen.

Instead, for the second consecutive year, the Steelers tagged Bell at the deadline and will pay him roughly $14.5 million this season rather than letting him enter free agency. The two sides will have until July 16 to reach a long-term deal or Bell will be locked into playing under the tag (unless he chooses to sit out the season, as he threatened to do in January if he was tagged for a second year).

In Bell’s five seasons with the Steelers, he has gained 7,996 yards from scrimmage—the most in NFL history through a player’s first 62 games. And over the past two years, he has led the NFL in touches (742) and yards from scrimmage (3,830). He led all running backs with 200 targets, 160 receptions, and 1,271 receiving yards in the same span, and he was second in the league in rushing yards with 2,559. He’s a top-three short-yardage back and a top-three home run threat, and when he lines up on the outside, he’s among the best no. 2 receivers in football. Yet, because of the NFL’s rookie wage scale, last season was the first time in his career that his salary topped $900,000.

Bell held out of offseason activities and training camp last summer while negotiating a new contract. That July, he turned down a deal that would have paid $42 million over the first three years, with $30 million guaranteed, and would have given him the most guaranteed money and the highest annual salary of any running back in the league. Instead, Bell decided to play under the tag and earned $12.1 million. Entering negotiations this spring, Bell is reportedly looking to sign a long-term contract worth at least $14.5 million per year, the amount he’ll make on this year’s franchise tag.

“I’m playing for strictly my value to the team. That’s what I’m asking. I don’t think I should settle for anything less than what I’m valued at,” Bell told ESPN this week. “I’m the one to bet on myself. And I’ll do it again.”

Being the NFL’s highest-paid running back sounds great, but that position’s value has greatly declined compared to other positions during the past decade. Second-year pro Leonard Fournette has the most guaranteed money of any running back at $27.2 million, and the second-largest deal belongs to Ezekiel Elliott, who signed a fully guaranteed $24.5 million contract with the Cowboys in 2016. Considering the historic numbers Bell has logged over the past five years, it’s hard to blame him for balking at a deal that would give him just 11 percent more guaranteed money than a rookie who signed his deal after last year’s draft.

“The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in July. “We do everything: We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”

When you consider his workload, it’s no wonder Bell is reportedly asking for either more guaranteed money or a higher annual salary. He had 336 touches in 2016, fourth most in the league, and then led the NFL with 406 touches in 2017—no other player cracked the 350 mark last season.

The Steelers recently restructured the contracts of guard David DeCastro and defensive end Stephon Tuitt to make room for Bell, but even with those moves they still have just $5.4 million in available cap space—the fourth-smallest amount in football.

Even with the tight cap squeeze and tense contract negotiations, neither Bell nor Pittsburgh seems to have any interest in separating. Despite his threat to sit out if he and the Steelers can’t reach a long-term deal, Bell will likely still return to Pittsburgh in 2018—just maybe not until September.