The Steelers have ‘til Monday to get a long-term contract done with Le’Veon Bell. Otherwise, Bell has little choice but to accept the franchise tag and play one season for $12.1 million with no security beyond.
That sounds like a great deal. $12.1 million isn’t chump change. Bell would be football’s highest-paid running back by $4 million.
But it’s a rotten deal.
Bell wants and deserves multi-year security. He might command around $20 million guaranteed via a long-term pact, and near $50 million total.
Bell, 25, is in the prime of his career. He’s had hiccups, some major, because of injury and marijuana use.
But Bell is out of contract, yet victimized by an incompetent union that allows NFL owners to keep free agency from being free.
A third-stringer can go where he likes. Not so the NFL’s elite. Those who would benefit most from free agency can’t really use it.
Bell plays for a coach, Mike Tomlin, who once famously said that he would run Willie Parker “until his wheels fall off.”
That wouldn’t be nearly as troubling if Tomlin didn’t proceed to do just that.
Tomlin gave Parker 658 carries over the 2006 and ‘07 seasons, resulting in 2,810 yards. But Parker broke his leg in the latter campaign’s penultimate game. Parker started 14 more games over the next two seasons and was out of the NFL before he was 30.
Parker’s wheels fell off.
The four-year contract Parker signed in 2006 earned him $13.6 million. That’s only $1.5 million more than Bell stands to make under the franchise tag.
But big money over the short term doesn’t mean Bell should willingly line up to be Tomlin’s next victim.
Bell has more options than the Steelers do.
Are the Steelers willing to start rookie James Conner? Bring back DeAngelo Williams?
The Steelers might have the best offense in football. But Ben Roethlisberger is 35. The upcoming season could be the Steelers’ last best chance to win a Super Bowl in the Roethlisberger era. Bell must play, and must excel.
Bell doesn’t figure to sit out the season. (BTW, why can’t negotiations for a long-term deal continue after Monday? The player gets shackled again.)
But Bell hasn’t signed anything. Not even the franchise tender. (Bell is the only tagged player in the NFL to not yet sign.) As long as Bell doesn’t put pen to paper, he’s not an employee of the Steelers. He doesn’t need to come to work.
So far, he hasn’t.
Bell no-showed OTAs and mini-camp. He was reportedly recovering from the groin injury that knocked him out of the AFC Championship Game at New England, but that hasn’t kept him from playing pickup basketball.
Bell should show up the week before the regular season starts, sign his franchise tender, get in a few practices and do his best from there. There would be less wear and tear on the wheels that way.
Bell’s best, in that scenario, would still be plenty good. Bell only got three carries in the entire 2016 preseason.
Tomlin wouldn’t like it. But Tomlin clearly isn’t worrying about Bell’s career. So Bell had better be. Bell needs to look out for himself.
Both sides have valid points in this conflict.
But the NFLPA and NFL conspiring to keep many of football’s best players from truly being free agents gets Bell my sympathy.
When the NFL CBA comes due in 2020, the players’ union has lots of catching up to do on several fronts. Eliminating the franchise and transition tags to make free agency truly free should be near the top of that list.
But if the NFL allows the players to smoke pot without fear of suspension, the rank and file will give up everything else to get that. Got to get high.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).