Le’Veon Bell is set to start the 2018 season playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers on the franchise tag as contract extension talks have broken down between the two parties. Playing on the tag means that Bell will earn $14.5M this season. This will be the second go around for Bell playing on the tag and although the Steelers would have the option to use the tag beyond this season, this scenario seems unlikely.
Last year, the Steelers offered the star running back a $60M deal with almost $43M of that coming in the first three years of the deal. However, Bell spurned that offer and is said to be asking for close to $17-18M per season, which would easily make him the highest paid running back in NFL history. It appears that the sides are not close to a multi-year contract, as the Steelers do not want to come close to the $14.5M tag price for Bell per season, let alone his current asking price. Currently, the highest paid running back on a multi-year deal is Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman at roughly $8.25M per season.
Earlier today after negotiations broke down, Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, said in part “it became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player . . . this will likely be Le’Veon’s last season in Pittsburgh.” The harsh reality of these statements suggest that Bell will be testing the open market at the end of this season. However. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert is not so willing to predetermine the future, commenting today that he will sit down with Le’Veon and his agent after the 2018 season and attempt to negotiate a long term contract once again.
This makes 2018 an interesting season for Bell and the Steelers. Le’Veon appears to have a catch-22 for all 17 games of the season. On one side you have Bell, who will be looking to have an outstanding season to both justify his negotiating position with the Steelers, but to maximize his potential on the open market. On the other hand, the injury question with impending free agency may cause him to not put the head down for those extra yards, dive for that catch, or stick his nose in against a blitzing linebacker. An injury would leave him out in the cold for rejecting a multi-year deal that still would have made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history, but a potential unwillingness to do things that made Le’Veon Bell the top running back in the league, could also hamper his earning potential in free agency.
David Johnson is watching the Bell scenario very closely as he is looking for a contract extension from the Arizona Cardinals. Johnson and his team, even after his injury, have to believe that Johnson is on par with Bell in terms of salary potential. Bell and the Steelers did not set the market for multi-year deals on 2018 superstar running backs, so the Cardinals and Johnson really have no basis for valuation. The Steelers refusing to meet Bell’s demands will only harm Johnson’s negotiating power, as the Cardinals may not want to be the first team to break the bank on such a fluid position. In the end, Johnson will get paid and Bell will get paid, it is just a questions of when and by whom.