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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: With franchise tag day looming, Steelers fans are divided about Le'Veon Bell

| Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, 6:42 p.m.
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell carries through the Packers defense during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell carries through the Packers defense during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, at Heinz Field.

The franchise tag window opens Tuesday. That means the Steelers have the option to place that designation on All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell any time between then and March 6.

The franchise tag for Bell is an estimated $14.5 million. The club then has until July 16 to negotiate a long-term contract.

According to a quick survey I conducted this weekend, working out such a deal would be an unpopular move.

Granted, Twitter polls should be taken with a mountain of salt. But I posted one while hosting an ESPN Pittsburgh radio show Saturday. The results were interesting.

The question was: “What do you want to see the Steelers do with the Le'Veon Bell?”

Roughly 600 votes later, the tally read:

Franchise tag him: 31 percent

Sign him long term: 35 percent

Let him walk in free agency: 34 percent

So, while signing Bell to a long-term deal was slightly favored by the Twitter poll voters, 65 percent of presumed Steelers fans don't want to see their team secure the services of a guy who has totaled 4,345 yards from scrimmage the past two years (including the playoffs) beyond 2018.

Tough crowd.

The arguments against an extension for Bell have been stated frequently. He gets hurt too much. His skills will erode soon because he's had too many touches. He's been suspended for marijuana use. He was late or absent at times during the Jacksonville playoff week. His quotes and tweets are distractions. He'll be too expensive against the cap.

For some of those reasons, that's why I've stated the best option is to franchise Bell.

It appears the team disagrees with me and, apparently, many of you.

On Thursday, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert claimed he was optimistic a deal could be worked out.

“We said (to Bell), ‘Look, we have a strong desire to keep you with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the remainder of your career,' ” Colbert said.

I guess 65 percent of us think that's the wrong decision. But if franchising Bell doesn't happen, I'd much rather see the Steelers sign him to an extension than have him leave in free agency.

Why? Well, let's work this argument backward.

For those who say they want Bell to leave via free agency, answer this: What if he signed the reported five-year, $60 million contract Pittsburgh offered last year?

Would you be mad?

Would you be walking around Heinz Field saying, “Boy, this Steelers team has problems, and one of them is the contract Le'V signed. We never shoulda kept that bum! We overpaid that guy!”

No. You wouldn't. You wouldn't be thinking twice about it. Just like all the hangwringing when Antonio Brown signed a $68 million deal a year ago has been forgotten because Brown performed well.

Bell would have, too. Plus, Bell would have been in training camp. So no absence from Latrobe to fret about.

That slow start to the season might have been avoided. So less animosity with the fan base would exist.

The ill-timed contract talk before the playoffs would not have happened because he wouldn't have lobbied for a new deal.

His behavior the week of the Jacksonville game? Yeah, that probably would've happened anyway.

I could have lived with just that incident in exchange for 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

For the “don't pay Le'V, rebuild the defense” crowd, how many new starters do you think Pittsburgh could get for the equivalent of what Bell would cost against the cap?

After all, the Steelers made a run at Dont'a Hightower last year. He ended up being an $8.5 million hit in New England. The Steelers did sign Joe Haden. He was cheap a season ago. He, however, will cost more than $11 million in 2018.

Also, it's a weak free-agent group for inside linebackers, which is Pittsburgh's main defensive hole given Ryan Shazier's injury. I'd rather see money go to a player the quality of Bell than overpay just for the sake of landing an average inside linebacker.

For the “use a back-by-committee approach like the Patriots” crowd, well that committee began forming back in 2014 with the drafting and virtual redshirting of James White. Then came the addition of Dion Lewis in 2015, before sprinkling in Rex Burkhead this year.

Pittsburgh fans will — of course — be patient enough to let a plan like that coalesce, right?

Giving Bell a big-money extension is distasteful because of his attitude, the cost and the risk.

Yet, seeing him run in a different uniform in 2018 and maybe beyond would be even worse.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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