But the back-and-forth negotiations with the franchise over two offseasons have forced Bell to consider all options, including 2019 free agency. Playing prime years at a position with a short shelf life on one-year retainers kind of feels like “settling,” Bell said.
“If they don’t want to pay me long term, then let me go test the market,” Bell said about the big picture in an interview with ESPN on Monday, a day before the Steelers officially placed the franchise tag on Bell at a salary of $14.544 million.
To be sure, Bell's asking price of at least $14.5 million per year has made a marriage workable but challenging. The Steelers have increased their offer in recent weeks and are believed to be close to his number.
But Bell said he has at least thought about this scenario: play a second consecutive year on the tag, resulting in a $26.664 million payout over two seasons, then hit free agency at age 27 and sign with Pittsburgh or any other suitors.
The Steelers and Bell have until July 16 to work on a deal, after which Bell plans to skip training camp if asked to play on the tag again. He has threatened retirement in interviews with ESPN but said during an Instagram Live chat Wednesday night that he doesn't want to miss games. Passing on nearly $1 million per game is not exactly sound financial planning.
But Bell plans to still have mileage left in him after next season, and even if he's no longer considered in his prime, getting a reasonable contract elsewhere might push him over $50 million in guaranteed money when factoring in the two tags.
Bell is willing to bet on himself if it comes to that. He believes his injury-plagued days are over.
"For me to get hurt [again] will take a lot," Bell said. "I know when I’m 30 or 31 years old, I know I’ll be productive because I don’t depend solely on my athletic ability to get open and get yards. It’s more my mind. The Steelers know that."
Bell has said multiple times he wants to be a standard-bearer for a suppressed running backs market. Even his offensive line teammates are rooting him on and "telling me I need to get what I deserve," Bell said.
Bell isn't sure if he'll ever end up a true free agent one day. But he's willing to be patient as long as the Steelers are, too.
"This is what I kind of expected," Bell said of the likelihood of drawn-out negotiations for the second consecutive summer. "I know how the league feels about running backs. I’m not a guy who will budge off how I feel about my work."