PITTSBURGH -- The Le’Veon Bell holdout has become an unprecedented story: a marquee player at the top of his positional pantheon skipping whole months of a season to preserve long-term health. No other player in NFL history has held out until November without signing a franchise tag.
From players to coaches to front office execs, no one knows what to think -- or what to expect -- anymore.
The longer this drags out, the more questions arise. The world of transition tags and accrued seasons only deepens the intrigue.
Let's take this to the ground level. Where do things stand with Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers as we start Week 10 of the NFL season?
How does Bell become an unrestricted free agent?
If the Steelers do not place the franchise or transition tag on him this offseason, Bell will become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year in March. That is the case whether he plays seven or zero games this season.
Why is that the case?
Bell is in his sixth NFL season. He has more than played out his four-year rookie contract. Once he isn't under the restriction of a tag, he's open for business. And that's his goal.
What does this Nov. 13 deadline mean?
Nov. 13, a week from Tuesday, is the last day Bell can report in order to play on the tag this season. If he doesn't show by then, he can't play or get paid for his services in 2018.
What happens if the Steelers rescind the franchise tag?
If they do so, he will immediately become a free agent, ready to sign anywhere.
Short of that, Bell is bound to the one-year commitment of that tag. That's what made a trade so difficult. He can't negotiate with the Steelers or another team until after the year.
Would the Steelers rescind the tag?
Probably not. They've shown no interest in doing so. And they have only until next week to change their minds.
How do the Steelers keep Bell from free agency in 2019?
By tagging him for a third consecutive year.
When would that happen?
During the exclusive window, usually from late February to early March.
They can't do that during this season?
No. This year, Bell is absolutely under the $14.5 million franchise tag that was placed on him months before the season. That doesn't change until the season is over.
How many years can the Steelers keep doing that?
2019 is the final year. An NFL player can't be tagged more than three times, regardless of designation (franchise or transition).
Would the Steelers actually franchise tag Bell for a third year?
No way. That salary number balloons to more than $20 million based on a wonky formula involving the highest-paid players in the league. The Steelers want no part of that. They won't pay that much for a running back.
What about the transition tag?
Now you're on to something. Bell told ESPN in October that the Steelers had plans to place the transition tag on him this offseason.
What is the transition tag?
The transition tag is a tool used by NFL teams to secure unrestricted free agents by giving the team the chance to match any contract offer from another team. Under the franchise tag, which is a higher number, the team owns the player’s rights wholly.
The transition tag pays less because the rights are less secure. Bell is free to negotiate elsewhere, and if a new team offers, the Steelers can match that offer. If they don't want to match, he's free to sign that contract with the new team. If no offer comes, Bell can play on the one-year transition tag at the set price.
The transition tag gives Bell more flexibility. That's why he would welcome it. But one option that would not be possible under the transition tag: a sign and trade. The CBA does not allow that.
What was Bell’s transition tag number supposed to be originally?
Around $17.4 million, or 120 percent of his previous salary.
But what about all the games Bell has missed? How does that affect the transition tag formula?
Well, the Steelers will try to prorate that transition number, as ESPN's Dan Graziano reported last month. In that scenario, let’s say Bell plays seven games or is present for seven of 17 weeks this season. The Steelers could argue that Bell can be transition tagged at $7.16 million, or 7/17 of the $17.4 million.
They will do so because they believe the Collective Bargaining Agreement supports them in that. Bell didn’t show up for those weeks.
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that Bell's transition tag would end up being approximately $9-$10 million.
What will Bell’s camp think about this?
They wouldn’t be happy, and the player’s union would file a grievance on their behalf. Bank on it.
What would happen then?
An arbitrator would handle the case, and the Steelers would feel pretty confident they’d win the ruling.
What if Bell doesn't play at all this season? What would happen to the transition tag?
From what I'm told, the team could tag him at $14.5 million, the same number as last year. Why? Because the Steelers would be paying 120 percent of his last recorded salary, which, in this case, would be his tag from 2017, $12.1 million.
But that's sort of a moot point because Bell would likely get a good offer from another team.
Why might the Steelers opt against transitioning Bell?
For at least two reasons:
To avoid the headache of retaining Bell’s rights when two years of rocky franchise tag negotiations led to the holdout in the first place, and James Conner is looking more and more like the team's future.
Because there is no compensatory draft pick associated with that tag.
The second reason is important. If the Steelers let Bell walk, he’ll likely sign a big enough contract to earn the Steelers a third-round pick in a future draft based on the comp-pick formula. That might be as good a haul as the team would earn in a trade.
Would opposing teams use those factors against the Steelers by offering a low-ball deal?
They certainly could. They know the Steelers value Conner and weren't thrilled with how Bell's absence played out.
What's a nice-and-tidy scenario if Bell does show up by Nov. 13?
Bell plays six games and plays well, the team lets him walk, he signs a mega-deal with San Francisco or Indianapolis or Philadelphia, and the Steelers get a good mid-round draft pick.
And Bell finally becomes a free agent.