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Separating fact from fiction with Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have until July 16 to negotiate with the franchise-tagged Le’Veon Bell, and neither side appears in a rush. But the perceived lack of momentum entering those crucial summer conversations paints a murky picture between the team and the game’s best running back.

All options appear to be on the table, from a one-year rental and eventual breakup to a mega-deal that satisfies both sides.

A few mini-developments have surfaced over the past few weeks: The Steelers' prioritization of the draft and free agency before re-opening Bell talks; Bell's admission that he feels a villain in an NFL city that usually tilts positive toward its players; and the NFL Network's on-air report that mentioned Bell wants to be paid like Antonio Brown, who makes around $17 million annually.

After talking with Bell multiple times since January, along with keeping a pulse on the negotiations, this is my attempt to separate fact from fiction on the Bell front:

That Bell wants $17 million a year: Here's what I know -- when I asked Bell what his per-year magic number was, he said he wouldn't take anything less than $14.5 million annually (his franchise number) over the course of a long-term deal. That's not a direct number but can be a guide here. He very well might want $17 million, but he probably wouldn't have said that if $15 million wouldn't get it done.

That Bell and the Steelers remain far apart: While they aren’t particularly close, they aren’t that far off, either. The Steelers have increased their offer from last year, which Bell said fell at an average of $13.3 million annually. But Bell asked for more before the March 6 deadline, forcing the Steelers to reassess.

The Steelers have to decide if they want to enter that $15 million stratosphere. But it’s not like the sides are operating with a $5 million gap. They are already fairly close to Bell’s sweet spot.

That there's tension on both sides: Not sure if tension is the right word, but both parties would acknowledge this hasn’t gone as planned, which creates unrest. The Steelers would prefer players not divulge negotiations through the media. They also understand Bell can say what he wants; he’s not under contract. The fact they haven’t leaked any negative press about him over the past few months can be perceived as a good sign.

Bell’s conviction about setting new precedent for running backs is real. He has shown that by essentially turning down two deals since last year. He’s willing to be patient. The Steelers took a swing at a new deal before the first franchise deadline, and now this will inevitably drag into July.

Conversely, the Steelers are concerned about league-wide precedent for a positional market that's well below $10 million per year for top backs. They recognize Bell’s two-way value as a receiver and running back but don’t want to spend wildly, even if any deal they cut is escapable in two years with minimal cap blowback.

If a summer offer doesn’t stick, the unrest might mushroom into something more deep-rooted. The Steelers will undoubtedly be salty about Bell missing a second straight training camp.

That Bell is a villain: Maybe he is a villain to a faction of the Steelers' fan base. He shouldn’t be. It’s his right to maximize his earning power at a time when his skill set will never be more valuable.

The fervor of cap-savvy Steelers fans who would rather use Bell’s money for defensive help is hard to ignore. Many loyalists to the black and gold simply don’t agree with Bell’s assessment that running backs deserve more.

But the Steelers have seen business from all sides, and they know the deal here. This could very well serve as a two-year, $27 million contract that began in 2017, the first year of two franchise tags. They are good either way, and the draft will signal the Steelers' true intentions (more on that later).

That it’s all about the guarantees: Not exactly. Bell acknowledges the Steelers only do contracts a certain way, with the signing bonus the one true guarantee. In return, they typically don’t cut their good players, assuming the play stays respectable. So, the guarantees are crucial in that the signing bonus must be hefty, but Bell knows the chances of him playing three or more years under a deal are pretty good, so per-year average is just as crucial.

That this negotiation is straight from the Kirk Cousins handbook: While Washington never truly wanted a long-term marriage with Cousins, who played on two franchise tags before signing with the Minnesota Vikings, this feels different. If Bell plays out another franchise tag, the decision will be business-driven, not due to a lack of faith in Bell.

“We acknowledge that we have an interest on doing long-term business with him,” coach Mike Tomlin said late last month at the NFL owners meetings.

That the Steelers are looking for Bell’s replacement in the draft: This is more significant than some other speculation and is at least partly true.

The Steelers are prepared to protect themselves, since Bell negotiations have proved difficult. The team’s interest in LSU’s Derrius Guice, for example, is genuine. His interview with the team at the combine was described to me as all hands on deck.

If the team nabs a running back during the first two days of the draft, they are officially ready for anything.