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How Adrian Peterson factors into Le'Veon Bell's contract future

PITTSBURGH -- Free-agent running back Le'Veon Bell's negotiation with the Pittsburgh Steelers could get complicated, but at the core it's quite simple.

Just follow the snow tracks to Minneapolis, the birthplace of Adrian Peterson's milestone $100-million contract in 2011.

No running back has touched Peterson's average earnings of $14 million per year since that deal. The next-closest currently under contract is LeSean McCoy at around $8 million. When it comes to Bell's future, the sound of McCoy's number is much sweeter to the Steelers than Peterson's.

But Peterson is still the market's standard-bearer, at least for now. And Bell, arguably the best tailback to enter free agency since Peterson's prime, will hope to spike that market with one swift open-field cut.

That means Bell, ever confident, will set his eyes north.

Can both sides find a sweet spot?

The franchise tag is a good first step in earnest. The Steelers can apply the tag starting today, slating Bell to make around $12.4 million for one year and serving as a placeholder in case both sides can't agree on a longer deal.

Peterson can still deepen the intrigue. The Vikings' looming decision on Peterson should be closely watched at Steelers headquarters. The Vikings are widely expected to pass on the 31-year-old Peterson's $6 million roster bonus in the final year of his deal. That leaves Minnesota with two options: Cut him or ask him to take a reduced salary, a reality a prideful Peterson might not accept.

If Peterson is released, that $14-million-a-year clip is off the books, leaving McCoy the game's highest-paid back. The Steelers easily could give Bell more than McCoy without jeopardizing the salary cap.

But consider that Bell -- who's coming off an explosive year in which he averaged 157 yards from scrimmage per game -- has long admired Peterson's career, and he basically admitted in a rap lyric last offseason that he'll want Peterson money. Bell, also known as the rapper Juice, wrote this in his song "Focus": "I'm at the top and if not I'm the closest, I'ma need 15 a year and they know this."

Bell later backed off those comments, saying he's not a greedy person. But the seed has been planted: He's a confident player and plans to be paid as such. Despite two drug-related suspensions and two knee injuries, Bell's been too good to accept a modest deal. After all, his own suspension aside, Peterson was slated to earn $85 million over the last six years, which dwarfs the recent deals signed by McCoy (five years, $40 million) and DeMarco Murray (five years, $42 million).

No one will understand that discrepancy more than Bell's reps, even if Peterson's numbers are ultimately far-fetched for any running back in 2017.

The Steelers stuck by Bell through the suspensions, then proceeded to pound the rock nearly 30 times per game with their team MVP late in the season. Bell capitalized on that opportunity and proved he's the game's most unique back.

Those factors suggest the two sides need each other. Things could get heated over the next six months before they realize this.