Tag season for the Steelers, Le’Veon Bell begins on Tuesday
Le’Veon Bell celebrated his 27th birthday Monday, and he’s searching for a belated gift that has eluded him the past two years: unrestricted free agency.
The Pittsburgh Steelers running back has been trying to hit the open market since his four-year rookie contract expired after the 2016 season. Keeping him from unwrapping that present has been the franchise tag.
The Steelers exercised the right to use the franchise tag on Bell in each of the past two seasons. He earned $12.12 million while playing under the tag in 2017, but Bell sat out the last season because he refused to sign the $14.54 million tender.
Whether Bell finally gets a chance to hit the open market will be determined within the next 15 days when NFL teams can begin applying the franchise tag and the lesser-used transition tag.
Starting Tuesday and continuing through 4 p.m. March 5, teams can use the franchise or transition tag on one of its impending free agents. Per the CBA, the Steelers can use the franchise tag on Bell a third time, but forget about that happening and focus more on the transition tag.
The franchise tag is rendered moot to the Steelers because of cost. Where the second-year franchise tag represented a 120 percent increase on Bell’s 2016 salary (which is where the $14.54 million value was derived), the third-year value represents the equivalent of the five highest-salaried employees in the NFL.
With quarterbacks representing the highest-paid players, the franchise tag number for Bell this season would be at least $25.5 million, according to overthecap.com. Scratch that from the Steelers’ options.
That leaves the transition tag as the more viable choice. The value of the transition tag in Bell’s case is not concrete because his situation is unprecedented. Some believe Bell’s figure should be set at $14.54 million — the salary he would have earned for playing in 2018. Others think because Bell skipped a season, his transition number should be about $9.7 million, the anticipated value for any other running back slapped with the transition tag this year.
The last time the Steelers used the transition tag was in 2014 when they applied it to linebacker Jason Worilds. He played that season for $9.754 million before announcing his retirement the following offseason.
In the grand scheme of the tag, the amount determined by arbitration in Bell’s case isn’t relevant because he wants a multiyear contract – or at least a chance to negotiate a multi-year contract.
This is about seeking a long-term deal (from Bell’s perspective) and using the transition tag as a tool to receive immediate compensation (from the Steelers’ perspective).
The Steelers can’t trade Bell and get a draft pick or player in return unless he signs the tender. That could require a leap of faith on Bell’s part, that he put his future in the hands of the organization he is so intent on leaving. Why should he help the Steelers after two years worth of failed negotiations?
If the Steelers use the transition tag and Bell doesn’t sign it, he would be free to negotiate with the other 31 teams. Once Bell finds an offer to his liking, the Steelers would have the right to match it and retain him. If the Steelers fail to match it, Bell joins his new team and the Steelers receive nothing as compensation. Which defeats the purpose of the Steelers using the transition tag.
The NFL team trying to sign Bell could make it difficult for the Steelers to match any offer to the running back by providing more than one year of guaranteed money. The Steelers only guarantee contracts for the first year, so any team trying to sign Bell can use this as leverage.
The CBA also prohibits the Steelers from trading Bell for one season to any team that submits an offer sheet. The way to circumvent that rule is for Bell to approve the trade. Again, that would require unprecedented cooperation between the Steelers, Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari.
The past two seasons, the Steelers waited until late in the process to use the franchise tag on Bell. In 2017, they issued the tag with two days to go before the deadline. Last year, because they were trying to negotiate a long-term deal with Bell, the Steelers applied the tag at the 4 p.m. deadline.
The 15-day window for the Steelers to use either tag could be moot if they determine it’s a waste of their time and resources. The only way for the Steelers to be guaranteed any form of compensation for Bell departing is to let him walk and get a compensatory draft pick in 2020.
One thing is for certain: Starting Tuesday, the clock will be ticking.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .