And you thought the whole Le’Veon Bell thing was simply coming to an end. Not a chance. There are still several scenarios remaining for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the fight with their star running back who sat out the entire 2018 season. Here is what lies ahead.
Understanding the Transition Tag If you have followed the whole Bell saga, you would know that the Steelers organization used the franchise tag on Bell … twice. Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Pittsburgh was able to designate Bell, who has 5,336 career rushing yards, as its franchise player for the 2017 season. In doing so, the tag entitled Bell to a salary that matched the average of the top five running backs in the NFL. Bell earned $12,120,000 for the 2017 season.
The Steelers again placed the franchise tag on Bell in 2018. Had Bell decided to play in 2018, he would have been due $14.5 million as a player tagged in a previous season is entitled to 120 percent of the salary he earned under the previous franchise tag. The transition tag is different from the franchise tag.
The transition tag is a one-year designation that will pay less than the franchise tag since it allows a player to collect a salary equal to the average of the top 10 players at a position. Designating Bell with the transition tag would greatly reduce the salary the Steelers would have to pay him. The problem for the Steelers is that other teams may present offers to Bell (after the start of the new league year). The Steelers must match any offer or Bell walks and Pittsburgh receives no compensation.
The period for applying any tag, franchise or transition, begins on Feb. 19 and must be completed by 4 p.m. ET on March 5.
Transition or Franchise Bell? The Steelers have a number of plays here. They could actually apply the franchise tag for a third consecutive year. The problem with that is, per the CBA, a third tag would likely mean Pittsburgh would have to pay Bell in excess of $20 million. There is no way the Steelers would do that especially since they paid James Conner less than $600,000 last season to rush for 973 yards and catch 55 passes in 13 games.
There are some questions though as to how Bell’s sitting out the 2018 season affects any application of the franchise or transition tags. Because he didn’t actually receive a salary in 2018, Bell might be forced to take $14.5 million – 120 percent of his 2017 deal – in 2019. It’s still unlikely the Steelers would use the tag. Bell could simply sit out another season and Pittsburgh would have to count the $14.5 million (or $20-plus million) toward their salary cap.
Applying the transition tag offers similar problems. Bell’s salary would likely come in at around $9.5 to $10 million. He could sit out the season again with the Steelers losing cap space. Bell could also entertain offers from teams like the Jets or 49ers. If someone came along and offered Bell Todd Gurley-like (or at least close to it) money, the Steelers would probably let Bell go. In that scenario, the Steelers get no compensation for letting Bell walk.
What about a Trade? Sure, the Steelers can trade Bell, but he would have to sign a transition tag tender offer first. That isn’t likely to happen. In signing the tender, Bell would give Pittsburgh the ability to control where he goes and how he gets there. In reality, Bell loses control if he signs.
How It Plays Out Franchise tag? No way. Transition tag? It’s too difficult. Pittsburgh will argue Bell’s salary should be around $10 million. Bell will argue closer to $15 million. The Steelers need Bell to agree to the tag in order to trade him. By signing, Bell gives up control. Not going to happen.
The more likely scenario? Bell remains a free agent, somebody ponies up an offer he can’t refuse, and the Steelers go home happy with a compensatory draft pick.