That an all-time great franchise and an all-time great yards producer can’t figure out a way to stay married long term is a wild concept.
Bell will play on the franchise tag for a second year after both parties negotiated but remained apart in money.
There are several implications for the Steelers and Bell, whose 7,996 yards is an NFL record for a player’s first five seasons.
What does this mean for Bell’s future with the franchise?
That he’s one and done, basically. There’s no going back on a failed negotiation with $14.5 million as a starting point. Tagging Bell a third time would cost $20.88 million, and that’s after another 300-plus touches. Even a transition tender of $17.42 million seems unlikely.
Bell can hit unrestricted free agency in 2019 as a 27-year-old with mileage issues but a skill set that should age well since he relies more on vision/quickness/savvy than raw athleticism to get yards. Cleveland or San Francisco or the New York Jets will pay him something.
What about re-signing him straight up next year?
Perhaps if injury or another unexpected variable diminishes his value and Pittsburgh gets him at a value, but that seems unlikely for a player of his caliber.
What will the Steelers do now?
Give Bell the ball over and over in 2018, then prepare for life without him. Develop draft picks James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, hope for the best — and for a good compensatory pick from Bell’s 2019 departure.
What will Bell’s status for training camp be?
Tenuous at best. Most likely, Bell will continue to train in South Florida, stay low-key and show up in early September. That was the chosen path last year and the blueprint still makes sense for Bell despite last season’s slow start (3.46 yards per carry in Weeks 1-3). This helps him avoid injury leading into the season.
But isn’t the team concerned about Bell missing a second consecutive camp?
Of course, but there’s no controlling Bell’s business leverage. He’s technically not under contract. He can essentially show up when he wants. And though you can’t simulate football training, Bell should be able to tweak his own regimen to negate sluggish play early on.
What can the Steelers expect from Bell on the field this season?
They can expect a “better me,” Bell told ESPN in June. Early last season, Bell admitted to starting slowly and was frustrated by too many negative runs (his longest in 2017 was 27 yards). He hopes to improve in those areas and raise his rushing average from last season’s 4.0 yards per carry. Bell has focused on boxing and a vegan diet this offseason as a way to alleviate any joint pain. He’s waiting until later in the summer to get into heavy football training. He believes this will help him.
The Steelers should see the same player he’s been since 2014, basically. Bell relies more on vision/quickness/savvy than raw speed, so he should be a steadying force in the backfield in tight games.
If Bell can show up when he wants, what’s the worst-case scenario for the Steelers?
That would be Bell bagging most of the season, showing up in November in time to gain an accrued NFL season, then playing the final six or so games. This is also unlikely because Bell would have to forfeit most of that $14.5 million (six games gets him the registered season). But if health for 2019 is his top option, he can play the holdout card. Remember, he’s technically not under contract.
What about the retirement talk?
Bell has softened this stance. He’s likely to play football in 2018.
Who’s in the wrong here?
Neither party, really. Fans will side with the team, but teammates appreciate Bell’s unique versatility and understand he must maximize his one chance at a payout. The Steelers had to think league-wide, too: Giving Bell $15 to $16 million per year would balloon the running back market nearly 200 percent. That’s not an ideal business model, even for a top-10 player.