The Steelers' star running back, who is headed into the final year of his rookie contract and is eligible for unrestricted free agency next year, recorded a rap song last month in which he referenced a potential $15 million-per-year salary. As great a player as Bell is, that was always unlikely. Adrian Peterson is the highest-paid NFL running back at $14 million per year, but after that it's a big drop-off to LeSean McCoyat $8.01 million per year. Even if he'd had a monster year and hit the market, it's likely Bell would have had a chance to top McCoy's average annual salary, but not Peterson's.
Of course, now you have to wonder whether he can even hope for that. Assuming his appeal is unsuccessful, Bell will begin the season on a drug suspension for the second year in a row. He missed the first three games of his 2013 rookie season due to injury, which means 2014 will be the only year of his first four in the league in which Bell played 16 games.
These are the kinds of things that erode a player's market value, as are the torn knee ligaments that cost Bell the final eight games of 2015 and the fact that he's a running back in a market that doesn't value that position as highly as it values many others.
Bell is a superstar talent, and his on-field performance makes a case for him to be among the highest-paid players at his position. Since he entered the league, his 119 yards per game from scrimmage leads all players. He caught 83 passes for 854 yards two years ago to go with his 1,361 rushing yards. When he's on the field, the Steelers' run game and passing game function at a high level.
But when and if the two sides get to the negotiating table, the team's case for holding back is going to make some good points, too. DeAngelo Williams ran for 801 yards and 11 touchdowns in the 10 games Bell missed, which eats at the idea that Bell is irreplaceable. But more important to the team's case will be the old saw that "the most important ability is availability."
Between suspensions and injury -- assuming the suspension he's currently appealing stands -- Bell will have missed 17 of the first 52 games of his NFL career. If he comes back and has a dazzling final 12 games, leading the Steelers to the playoffs, performing the way he did in 2014 and staying out of further off-field trouble, then he'll be able to make the case for a big-money contract. But Pittsburgh already had questions about when and whether he could recover from last year's knee injury to play at his 2014 level, which is one reason it hadn't extended his contract already.
What we have at this point is a pile of reasons for the Steelers to wonder whether they can trust Bell to be available to them moving forward. As brilliant a player as he is when he's on the field, a team wants to know before dishing out a big long-term deal whether it can trust the guy it's paying. If Bell wanted a new contract, or even if he wanted to avoid the 2017 franchise tag, the news of his latest drug suspension couldn't have been timed much worse.