The writing is on the wall. With less than one week before the deadline to sign franchised players to long-term deals, it seems obvious the Steelers have made up their mind. Le’veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Come 2018, it’s very unlikely Bell will be carrying the ball for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team will have the right to tag Bell for one more season if they choose. That however, doesn’t feel like an option for either side. Already at $12.5 million for this season, the franchise tag for arguably the best running back in football is sure to go up significantly. Tying up the salary cap for upwards of $14 million on a running back is not something any NFL team would want. From Bell’s prospective, playing under the tag for two consecutive years without a multi-year deal would be unacceptable. No NFl player ever wants to be tagged twice, despite the short-term financial windfall. That very scenario is playing out right now in Washington, where a twice franchised Kurt Cousins is all but sure to leave the team once the season is over.
You can’t blame the Steelers for being hesitant to sign Bell to a contract. The club has watched its star running back end the last three seasons injured. At this point he must be considered an average injury risk going forward. Then there is the lingering issue of multiple drug suspensions. While most feel Bell has put those problems well behind him, it’s only been a little over a year since the announcement of his last suspension. Finally, the running back position itself has become less of a key position then it was in previous years. A pass happy league has become less reliant on the 30 carry a game backs from past seasons. Salaries for that position have dropped dramatically over time. Bell is sure to be looking for a contract with the starting point of his franchise tag amount. At $12.5 million, he would far surpass the next highest paid back LeSean McCoy who is at $8 million per year. Tying up that much cap space on Bell, could prevent them from signing some key personnel going forward. Players like Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, and Alejandro Villanueva all are due for new contracts in the coming years.
So what are the team’s options going forward? Well the Steelers hold all the cards for the next two years. As discussed earlier, franchising Bell for a second time wouldn’t be an ideal option. It would allow the team to take one more shot at a Super Bowl before an impending Ben Roehtlisberger retirement. After that though, the team would find itself in full rebuild mode after losing two of its biggest stars with no compensation. There is another alternative that could be more beneficial to Pittsburgh. The team could once again use the franchise tag, then seek a trade prior to the draft. Bell could conceivably net a high first round pick for teams looking to get a chance to sign him long-term before he hits free agency. The timing would seem perfect as the Steelers will undoubtedly be looking to pick a quarterback in the first round of next year’s draft. This would give them plenty of ammunition to move up in the draft and get in position to get a player they like. Le’veon Bell fans should savor the 2017 season, because it’s sure to be the last we see of possibly the best running back in franchise history.