Steelers place franchise tag on RB Le'Veon Bell
The Steelers didn't want to use the franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell. He didn't want to receive it, either.
But for the second year in a row, the two sides must deal with that reality.
Unable to secure a long-term contract for Bell, the Steelers on Tuesday used the franchise tag on their All-Pro running back for the second consecutive season, setting his 2018 salary at $14.54 million.
Tuesday was the last day for teams in a two-week window to apply the franchise tag on players. The next deadline is July 16, when players who received the franchise tag must agree to a long-term contract or play the 2018 season under the terms of the franchise tag.
Also for the second year in a row, the Steelers used the exclusive tag on Bell rather than the non-exclusive designation. By using the exclusive tag, the Steelers are the only team that can negotiate with Bell. The only way Bell would not play for the Steelers in 2018 is if they rescind the offer before it is signed.
The Steelers were hoping to avoid the route they took in 2017 when they didn't reach an agreement with Bell by the July deadline, and he used it as leverage to sit out training camp. Bell didn't sign his $12.12 million franchise tender until a week before the start of the regular season.
Bell told ESPN in January that he would threaten to sit out the season if the Steelers used the franchise tag again. He told ESPN on Monday that he was not bluffing.
General manager Kevin Colbert said last week at the NFL Combine the Steelers were hoping to avoid using the franchise tag by signing Bell long term.
"We never like talking about the tag because that is nobody's goal," he said. "That is not their goal. That is not our goal, but we'll never say the tag is not available because it is a collectively bargained item that, if need be, it will be put to use. Again, any time that comes up, we try to dismiss it because that is nobody's goal in this process."
After the Steelers made the franchise tag official, Bell reacted on Twitter. Responding to an NFL Research tweet that said Bell has averaged more scrimmage yards (129) than any NFL player in his first five seasons, Bell wrote, "What more I gotta do to be wanted?"
lol what more I gotta do to be wanted? https://t.co/Dq5oe5hRZ4— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) March 6, 2018
Bell's $14.54 million figure will count against the salary cap when the new league year begins March 14, the first day of free agency. The Steelers are between $5.1-$5.4 million under the cap, which officially will be $177.2 million in 2018.
That gives them eight days to restructure contracts or release high-cost veterans. One candidate is safety Mike Mitchell, whose release would bring a $5 million salary-cap savings.
The Steelers already have restructured the contracts of guard David DeCastro and defensive end Stephon Tuitt to increase room.
In addition to freeing up the $9 million required to account for Bell's contract, the Steelers will need additional cap space for free agency and tenders to restricted free agents Chris Boswell, Anthony Chickillo and Eli Rogers.
The restricted free agency tenders are as follows: first round, $4.149 million; second round, $2.914 million; low round, $1.907 million. Any team signing a restricted free agent to the highest amount would have to part with a first-round draft pick as compensation. Chickillo is a former sixth-round draft pick, so the Steelers would receive a sixth-round pick as compensation if he is assigned a low-round tender and another team signed him. Because Boswell was not drafted, the Steelers likely would assign him a second-round tender of $2.914 million to keep another team from signing him. Rogers, another undrafted player, likely will get the low-round tender because he tore his ACL in the AFC divisional playoff game against Jacksonville and might not be ready for the start of the season.
"The restricted guys will all get their tenders," Colbert said. "Our policy is usually let's go and see if we can get something done with them beyond their one year of free agency. We'll continue to look at all those different things as we let this free agency unfold."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.