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Saved By The Bell, Or Not

What’s going with Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Le’Veon Bell by Brook Ward is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Saved By The Bell, Or Not


Estimated Reading Time: 13 Minutes

As we speak, the Steelers sit 3-2-1. This is absolutely not your typical record for the franchise with the most Super Bowls titles. Although, it’s not bad for a team missing their top offensive weapon.

Some will point to the defense for the lack of wins (and rightfully so). However, let’s take a deeper look at a missing piece for the team, Le’Veon Bell.

If you haven’t heard the highly regarded best running back in the league has been holding out this season and has missed every single practice, exhibition and regular season game of the 2018 season. Le’veon Bell has stated recently that he will return to his team between weeks 7-8, not surprising considering he needs to be on the roster for 6 games in order to be eligible for Free Agency in 2019. His reason for holding out is the ever daunting franchise tag.

Below, we will take a look the impact of the hold out from an outsiders perspective of both Bell and the Steelers. Before we do that, Here’s a quick recap that will explain a bit about the franchise tag.

Franchise Tag

In layman’s terms, the franchise tag is a tool that each NFL franchise has every year to utilize. The franchise tag allows you to apply a claim on a player from your team who is set to become an unrestricted free agent (free to sign with whatever team the player pleases). This process is usually done late February into early March(Feb 20-March 6, 2018), just ahead of the start of the new league year and that is usually mid-March (March 16, 2018).

Once a new league year has begun all players with expiring contracts become free agents. Placing the franchise tag is a way you can retain the player and stop him from hearing offers from other teams.

It’s also commonly used as a negotiation ploy to start talks on a long-term deal. The player and team must come to a long-term agreement by mid-July (July 16, 2018) or then play under the franchise tag for that season.

The pay for the franchise tag is quite hefty, but again, short term. You will pay a premium for the player, meaning you will pay the average of the top five player salaries at said players position or 120% of the player’s salary from the previous season, whichever is greater. So Bell would get the average of the top 5 highest paid running backs in the league or 120% of his last year salary and that too was a franchise tag.

It is not mandatory that a team use the franchise tag any year. It’s typical you see 8-16 teams tag players, although that has even dipped to about five tags in recent years due to the of inflation of players contracts. Also, a team could only utilize the franchise tag on the same player 3 times. Bell has been tagged twice. It’s a special circumstance when players are tagged more than once.

What’s Happening with Bell

Le’Veon Bellhref=https://www.flickr.com/photos/brookward/> by Brook Ward is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

A lot of people tend to think that this is usually a player problem. Most people think that when you are offered the average of top five money at your position to play the game you love… You should jump at the opportunity.

I mean, because we have all prepared our bodies and have been through moments like this, so we sure know how to give our opinion on it, right? Anyways, I digress. Sure on the top of the water, it looks nice. Top five money for 1 year sounds like a win-win for the parties. For the players, however, they understand the business of the NFL and that your average NFL career length is 3.3 years, so that’s not a lot of time to cash in on what you have crafted and skilled for 20 years in most cases.

Why doesn’t Bell sign the Franchise Tag?

Steelers by DJ A is licensed under CC BY NC ND 2.0

The growing stigma in the NFL is that players do not want to play under the franchise tag because it’s a one-year deal and most players want a multi-year/ long-term contract. The reason is simple. It’s the physical nature of the game. Like we stated earlier, the average career for an NFL player is 3.3 years. Couple that with the fact that a career-altering injury could happen in one play (what a nightmare).

This will be Bell’s second year playing under the franchise tag. Let’s say Bell tore an ACL while playing under last years franchise tag, do you think the Steelers even think to resign him let alone franchise tag him for the 2nd year in a row? Playing one year on a franchise tag is gambling your future but playing two years is really pushing your luck. Especially at the running back position.

As stated above, Bell is a running back. This skill position receives the most amount of contact and by far the more gruesome hits and tackles as they are constantly running into and at the teeth of the defense. The running back receives more play-to-play contact than any other position other than in the trenches. Even in the trenches lineman do not tackle each other; they use leverage, force and speed to get around each other so that they can tackle the running back. Due to the physical aspect of the game, running backs have even shorter careers than most players.

In previous seasons, Bell has touched the ball a ton, and while that sounds like the plan for superstar players, its also a good way to run your player ragged. Le’Veon is worried about being overused in the Steelers’ play calling and I do not blame him. Last season Bell had 321 carries and 85 receptions in 15 games. Most backs do not reach those kinds of numbers in 16 games and most receivers do not have that many catches, period.

One more reason Le’Veon Bell may not be willing to play in the parameters this deal is that he may feel he is worth more than the running back market offers. The position has been widely devalued over the last decade with teams utilizing the ‘plug and play’ method or running back by committee strategy.

It does seem to to have shown some results, yet you can see the difference in a player like Bell compared to a players like Bilal Powell of the NY Jets, Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons or Jay Ajai of the Philadelphia Eagles, who are all utilized in a running back by committee system.

This system basically says, “we have a good running game because our offensive line creates great opportunities for the runner.” This system seems to be on the ‘out’ cycle with teams drafting bell cow running backs like Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Eziekel Elliot, Melvin Gordon, and Saquan Barkley.

However, though the system is on the out cycle, the market has not been reflected like so, all of the above-named running backs are on rookie contracts (except Gurley, Bell is very grateful for Gurley’s deal being done). Gurley’s monster deal actually affects the market drastically but still keeping it under-valued.

If the market stays the same, some players working under their rookie contract are set to crack the top five paid at the position. That can not be said for many other positions on the field. So if Le’Veon plays this year, he will be playing with the top five average RB salary. Let’s take a look at the top five paid running backs for 2018 (excluding Bell’s franchise tag).

#1 Todd Gurley – $15,000,000

Lots of zeros in his bank account and he deserves it. I am not sure how the Rams are paying these players but they sure do take care of their own.

#2 David Johnson – $13,000,000

A very dynamic player who, due to a troublesome QB situation, is the key to the Arizona offense. Even though he missed all of last season, he is well deserving of this top market contract.

#3 Jerick Mckinnon – $10,500,000 

This number comes in as a bit of a surprise as this running back has been a bonafide NFL journeyman. Despite the opportunities he has received, he has not looked like the second best back in the league. On a lot of teams he formerly played for he barely the second best back on the team.

#4 Devonta Freeman – $8,250,000 

As you can see a big drop off from what Gurley is making. No offense to Devonta Freeman but he’s no Le’Veon Bell as he is often injured and is utilized in RB by committee system, splitting carries with Tevin Coleman.

#5 LeSean McCoy – $8,010,000

Now we see the market begin to level off.  This is what the highest paid Running Back in the last decade was getting (significantly less than this year’s standards). McCoy is a good running back but he is up in age and also injury prone.

In my opinion, none of these backs have the same impact for their team as Le’Veon Bell does. I believe you can tell that by the Steelers’ 3-2-1 record so far.

What does Bell have to lose?

Bengals@Steelers_10 by Scot is licensed under CC BY NC ND 2.0

Bell has a lot on the line. He is sacrificing a lot to make his point. He’s looking at taking loses to his wallet, from his teammates as well as his own personal image not to mention his role on the team.

Let’s talk finances. So far Bell has taken quite a hit this year. Per game, Bell is set to make $853,000. He was set to make $14.5 million this season but since the hold-out is still alive, that will not happen. Bell has missed six games so far and is set to miss his seventh week this Sunday. As of this past Sunday Bell has lost out on roughly $5.2 million dollars for the season. Bell has stated he will be back between week 7 and 8 but has not made that official with the team.

Long-term, if Bell came back between week 7 and 8, he will have missed out on roughly $6 million. Ouch. Lets say Bell does not do what he said he would do and actually waits till week 10 to come back. The reason I say week 10 is because that is the last possible week for him to report to camp without forgoing his 2019 free agency. He will lose out on $8.55 million dollars. That is a lot of money to lose, but it seems as if he would rather preserve himself for a more long-term role.

As far as his relationship with his team mates. That is one that is growing ugly (if not already ugly). Many of his teammates have been particularly upset with Bell. They are finding ways to express their displeasure through the media as well as twitter and the climate will not be the same for him when he returns. Some relationships may need mending, and trust and reliability will need to be restored.

What makes matters even worse, is it’s mainly the ones who directly affect his success as a running back, Bells offensive line, who are most vocal in their annoyance. Multiple members of the Offensive line feel disrespected or upset with Bells decision. With responses such as offensive guard Roman Fosters “He’s making seven times what I make, twice as much as Al (Villanueva) and we’re the guys who do it for him”.

Maurkice Pouncey also let the world know how he felt about it saying, “The business part…I get it. But not if it’s game day. We have a game this Sunday, we’re all the way into the game plan and you’re still not here?” I wonder how the offensive line feels after a 3-2-1 start to the season without Bell.

I’ll tell you that as running back, your best friends are the O-linemen. It is in your personal interest, and that of the team, to be close-knit and tight with your run-blockers. Understandably, the opposite is true for Bell and teammates right now.

It will also take time to get back into football condition, even though we all understand that players are very aware (yes and responsible) while on their own, it is nothing like getting hit on the field and it’s not recommended to wait till week eight for first contact. This will definitely affect his production on the team. It may not be until weeks 10-12 that we see the real Le’Veon Bell.

Teams may look at this move and may shy away from Bell and his amazing talents when he eventually does enter free agency. Teams may feel like he might affect the locker room when he’s not happy (case in point).  Some teams might now start to question his value after turning down $14.5 million and ultimately affecting the entire franchise, through the media, as well as Twitter.

His own personal image and role on the team may be compromised as well. Obviously, this move is a “me first” move by Bell. You cannot argue that he’s leaving his teammates out to dry, an organization that is willing to spend $14.5 million on him, as well as a fan base that has been cheering for him for years.

What is happening with the Steelers?

Mike Tomlinhref=https://www.flickr.com/photos/brookward/> by Brook Ward is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Steelers placed the franchise tag on Bell for the second straight year offering to pay Bell 120% of his last year’s salary meaning $14.5 million. A hefty price for 1 player, but also good to know it’s only a 1-year contract. Normally, teams come to agreement on a long-term deal after the first franchise tag, this situation is unique.

Le’Veon Bell is definitely a talent you want on your team. , was a great move by the Steelers in my opinion. They really do not have anything to lose. Eventually, a Running back will be injured to some extent. If Bell were to be seriously injured this type of contract would save the Steelers a lot of money and cap space.

This whole idea of the franchise tag is fully “team first.” The team has all the leverage in this situation. Not much to lose by tagging a player. They control his destiny by retaining him for a year and not allowing him to field other offers, and to a degree, they control his next season.

The Steelers will pay some bank, but in the long run, Le’Veon Bell will have to be on the Steelers roster for six games this season or he won’t be eligible for 2019 free agency. That is major. It pretty much nullifies a holdout. To me knowing that Bell has to return week 10 really puts a damper to that fire. Especially when Pittsburgh has so much confidence in James Conner and their offensive line, the Steelers still seem to think they can continue with no hiccups *Cough* 3-2-1 *Cough Cough*

What do the Steelers have to lose?  

Steelrs-7href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/andreahighamphotography/>byAndrea Higham is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Well, this answer is pretty basic with the Steelers; they really don’t have much to lose. In fact, some might argue, they might have actually accidentally done the best thing for their team. They preserved Le’Veon Bell. Now he comes back, midway through the season with fresh legs. Scary to think about a fresh Le’Veon Bell for the second half of the season.

One major piece that Pittsburgh might lose is team chemistry. As stated above, when we looked a Bell’s portion of this fiasco, his teammates were not happy early September when Bell missed the first game.

As weeks have progressed and James Conner has progressed, I expect attitudes towards Bell have deteriorated even further. It is not in the Steelers’ favor that teammates are not trusting one another. Especially when the team depends on the success of Bell and the Offensive line. If they are not in a better position when Bell comes back, look for a slow start to this reunion.

Even though the air attack is already dynamic this season with Juju Smith-Schooster and Antonio Brown it still strains the offense to have to rely on the passing game to win them games. Many times this season, the team has wandered away from the run game and entered shootouts with teams like the Chiefs and the Bucs. Sometimes, it’s exciting to throw it all over the field, but to keep the defense from struggling, you would like to be able to control the clock with the run game. I’m not sure if Pittsburgh can do that without Bell. It has been hit or miss with Conner.

Overall 

Overall, I believe Le’Veon Bell has the most to lose. If he signs the franchise tag and then goes on to have a major injury, he is losing max value for the rest of his life. He also is wasting yet another year on a one-year deal when his worth, calls for him to have a lifetime contract (obviously that is opinion based). 

If he doesn’t sign the Franchise tag, his image is slightly tarnished as a me-first player, and a hint of a locker room cancer. Teams will view him differently. The Steelers have all the leverage and are grooming another running back while Le’Veon enjoys his last few weeks of freedom. It might take a couple teammates weeks to get into a groove once Le’Veon returns and that’s if they even trust him enough to carry the ball. I expect the Steelers to bounce back from this slow start and eventually Bell will contribute to a playoff push.

The real losers here are the fantasy teams, many people took Le’Veon Bell in the top three picks (you gotta read the room better). Hope you grabbed James Conner and some popcorn in the meantime. This actually could get interesting in the next couple weeks.

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