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The Franchise Tag Makes Sense for Both the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

It’s not in Pittsburgh’s best interests to give Bell a long-term contract. It’s also not in Bell’s to accept one.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Le’Veon Bell’s defining trait as a runner is patience. Now it’s his defining trait in negotiations with the Steelers. The running back was unable to agree on a long-term deal with Pittsburgh and will once again play under the franchise tag in 2018, this time for $14.5 million. According to Bell’s agent, it is probably his last season in black and yellow.

Bell and the Steelers have been negotiating for two full years but still haven’t been able to agree on a long-term deal. Neither side is willing to compromise—and neither is wrong in standing their ground.

Since the Steelers drafted Bell in the second round in 2013, he has combined preternatural patience with elite elusiveness and cutting ability to become a top-five skill player. He can carry the ball between the tackles and on the perimeter, catch out of the backfield, and contribute in pass blocking, a versatility that made him perhaps the most dynamic skill player in football and a prototype for the modern three-down running back. In Bell’s 62 career games, he has amassed 7,996 yards from scrimmage—more than any other player in NFL history through their first 62 games.

Anyone who begins their career that strongly should ask for a raise, but securing proper compensation is almost impossible for running backs in the modern NFL. The league collectively realized a cold reality this decade: Running backs old enough to hit free agency are depreciating assets who have probably peaked and can be replaced for a fraction of the cost. This trend is now reflected in how teams spend their money. The highest average annual salary for a wide receiver (Antonio Brown, $17 million) is more than double the highest average annual salary for a running back (Devonta Freeman, $8.25 million).

“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 2017. “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.”

Bell has made only $16 million total thus far in his NFL career while serving as the league’s best running back, and rather than be the king of a very small hill, Bell wants to be paid for everything he brings onto the field by aligning running back contracts closer to other positions. As Bell rapped on his SoundCloud in July 2016 (Yes, Bell has a burgeoning music career), “I need 15 a year and I know that they know this.”

For the Steelers, $14.5 million per year—the amount he actually was asking for (because it matches his franchise tag amount), just shy of that 15 a year—is still a nonsensical number, especially considering the volume of hits Bell has taken in his five seasons. Bell leads the league in yards from scrimmage since he entered the league, but he’s also second in touches at 1,541—30 touches short of LeSean McCoy, though Bell has played 13 fewer games. Bell has the fifth-most touches through his first 62 career games of all time, trailing only LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, and Eric Dickerson, all of whom played in a completely different era of football when high-volume running backs were the norm. The closest running back to Bell who started his career after 2010 is DeMarco Murray, who retired on Friday—three years after he was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year—serving as the latest cautionary tale for teams thinking about paying big money to running backs. The Steelers have run Bell ragged during his tenure in Pittsburgh, quite literally, to a degree worthy of another era, and in the process, they have likely already reaped much of the value from his career. Two rookie third-round picks in 2017, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt, were nearly as good as Bell last year, but they earned just over a million bucks combined. If the Steelers think they can find even a fraction of that value via a draft pick, it’s irresponsible to commit almost $15 million annually to any running back, even one as good as Bell.

The Steelers understand they are investing in future performance, not past results. The team has held firm, and Bell’s negotiating tactics are limited. On Monday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter speculated that Bell might consider sitting out the first half of the season to keep himself healthy entering free agency in 2019, but we’ve seen this song and dance before. Bell held out from training camp last year but returned in time for Week 1. Skipping training camp is often about avoiding the gruel of camp, not an actual negotiating tactic. Bell’s real strategy is standing pat and taking the Kirk Cousins route to free agency by embracing the bitter medicine of the franchise tag overtaking a team-friendly discount in exchange for the illusion of security with a “long-term” contract.

That’s because long-term contracts don’t provide long-term security. When a player signs a five-year, $40 million contract with $14 million guaranteed, like Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham did in March, that’s really a $14 million contract. Teams, players, and agents are incentivized to publicize the potential value of the deal, but the guaranteed money is all that matters, and it often comes in the first half of the contract. Once the guaranteed money is paid, teams can cut players long before they reach the figures initially reported on their deals, which is what happened to Murray, Dez Bryant, Adrian Peterson, and many other players.

Long-term contracts are so team-friendly and shift so much risk to players that some superstars, like Cousins, Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson, and now Bell have decided that shirking long-term deals in favor of the franchise tag, which allows a team to sign a player to a one-year deal for a significant raise (whichever is higher: the average of the five highest salaries at that position or 120 percent more than the player’s current salary) is barely a risk at all. Bell, who is primed to hit free agency at 27 years old in what will likely be his only shot at a massive payday, will be the first superstar running back to play franchise tag roulette.

The Steelers are being rational and following recent league history by not investing in Bell, and Bell is following suit by betting on himself rather than taking a pay cut in favor of long-term security. With negotiations for Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Leonard Fournette on the horizon, Bell’s tactics may clear a lane for running backs to reclaim their earning power.