The $15M question: How will Le'Veon Bell do in free agency?

Bell's agent: Le'Veon intends to retire with Steelers (1:05)

Le'Veon Bell's agent, Adisa Bakari, appreciates how hard Pittsburgh worked to get a deal done for the running back, but the numbers didn't add up. (1:05)

PITTSBURGH -- Maurkice Pouncey has watched the Le'Veon Bell contract saga play out for two offseasons and knows where this is headed.

"He's a heckuva player, and honestly, no matter what, he's going to get paid eventually," the Steelers center said.

Bell's Pittsburgh Steelers teammates know the All-Pro tailback would be foolish to not test free agency after rocky franchise tag negotiations have kept Bell away from training camp for the second consecutive year.

While the Steelers are popping pads at Saint Vincent College, Vegas is setting odds on where Bell will land in March, with the New York Jets holding a slight lead.

The question Pouncey -- or really, most anyone -- can't answer is how much money Bell will actually command in March.

Bell is in South Florida with a clear-cut plan: have a big season and then find out. Todd Gurley's four-year, $57 million extension with the Los Angeles Rams only deepens the market intrigue.

After talking with several NFL personnel execs and veteran agents to forecast Bell's worth, anything seems possible.

One NFC team internally debated Bell's 2019 bottom line over the summer, taking into account all the factors:

  • His franchise tag of $14.5 million serves as a data point.

  • His unique skill set makes him one of the game's best running backs and possibly the best.

  • He'll be 27 in February.

  • He has 1,541 touches over five years and should get at least 300 more this season.

  • He suffered a significant knee injury in 2015 and received a second drug suspension in 2016.

One exec involved in those discussions puts it all on 2018.

"I think if he is productive, then maybe [he gets] around where he is making this year," the exec said. "I think his year will really dictate what he gets. Think people won't really focus on what he has done in the past but rather just this year."

Teams generally stay cautious with numbers this time of year, especially with running backs. Some agents, however, predict that Bell will blow the roof off the market with at least $16 million per year.

"Whatever he wants," said one veteran agent with direct experience with the franchise tag. "He’s a rarity. No one ever like him. Ultra special."

Although no one disputes Bell's talent, some NFL evaluators aren't sold on a sustained running back market at Gurley's value. One exec called the Gurley deal -- which includes $21.95 million guaranteed -- a "total outlier" for now, acknowledging that Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson will have their impact.

"I think he does well ... but if he’s really thinking about the $16 million number, that won’t be what people [in the league] are thinking about," one exec said.

Another exec added: "I'm not sure with that workload and history that he gets as much [as Gurley]."

Another factor is the fact that the final two years of Gurley's rookie contract are blended into his four-year extension, which creates an average payout of $11.57 million per year. Some teams could try to use that against Bell.

However, former Washington Redskins salary cap analyst and Priority Sports agent J.I. Halsell said Bell is in a sweet spot regardless. He has proved to be an elite playmaker, and Halsell predicts that at least one team will pay Bell in excess of $15 million per year.

Having the cash to spend is no problem. Six NFL teams entered 2018 free agency with at least $60 million in cap space.

"Assuming he’s healthy, as productive as he’s been historically, he’ll have multiple suitors," Halsell said. "Gurley has established what an elite playmaking running back market is. That’s Le’Veon’s floor -- maybe not in every aspect, but he should be able to get to free agency and get that in guarantees.

"If you're a team like the Detroit Lions that hasn't had running back production in recent years and you need an elite player to get over the hump, then you pay that money."

The wild card is the Steelers, who have options to retain Bell. The Steelers likely will consider placing the $17.8 million transition tag on Bell, which would allow Bell to negotiate with other teams but would give the Steelers the right to match. They would lose the compensatory pick due to them if Bell left in free agency outright, but they could try to parlay a draft pick out of the team that offered Bell a deal to match.

A third franchise tag of more than $20 million doesn't work for the position. But if Bell stays healthy and productive, his high mileage might not scare the Steelers or other teams.

"He’s smart to bet on himself," one longtime NFL personnel evaluator said. "He's fairly young. He should still be in his prime, and he'll still be a great player next year."

Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari, will emphasize guarantees, which is traditionally not an emphasis for the Steelers. They guarantee only the first year, signing bonus and salary.

Perhaps Bell will target a shorter, two- or three-year deal to maximize his guarantees. And if Bell is just short of Gurley's number, perhaps inflation will help.

Even his teammates know that.

"Every year, the price limit goes up," Steelers cornerback Artie Burns said. "We’ll just see when that time comes. He’s one of the best in the league, and whatever he gets, he deserves."