Cap Class: Le’Veon Bell and his Franchise Tag


Today, cap class is going to be a little different for Le’Veon Bell. I want to discuss what the franchise tag means, and how it affects the draft, his contract, and the options that all of them have. Cap implications are simple. If Bell is tagged, he gets a 20% raise. He gets this because, as a franchised player, he earns the average pay of the top 5 running backs or a 20% increase in pay from his previous year’s salary, whichever is higher. Since he’s the highest paid back in the league, the higher value is a 20% increase in pay from $12M to $14.4M for 2018.

Steelers Choices:

So from the Steelers’ perspective, they have 3 choices that must be made before free agency starts in early March:

     1. Sign Bell to a long term contract

     2. Franchise tag Bell

     3. Allow Bell to become a free agent

It looks like Bell probably won’t sign a reasonable contract (by the Steelers’ standards) before the start of free agency. It also looks like the Steelers do not want Bell to be a free agent, meaning they get nothing for his value, other than not having to pay his salary. So the only option available would be tagging him. There are 2 types of franchise tags that can be used. One is exclusive, which Bell was this year, meaning Bell was a Steeler for 2017 and was unable to negotiate a trade or take offers from any other team in the league except for the Steelers. The other option, which seems more likely this year, is the non-exclusive franchise tag. This option allows Bell and his agent to take offers from any other team. Once an offer is made, the Steelers have the right to either match the offer, or take 2 first round draft picks in exchange for Bell.

It sounds great to get 2 first round draft picks for a player, but the draft picks are written specifically so the deals many may think are possible, are not. Once tagged, Bell can only be traded for 2 first round draft picks. The first round picks must be the slotted picks earned by that team’s record. So if Cleveland wanted to trade first round picks, they couldn’t trade their #4 pick, it would have to be their #1 pick in the first round (since they hold the #1 and #4 picks and finished with the worst record, so their slotted pick is the first in the draft). The second first round pick would be their 2019 pick from their record slotting. So if Bell is tagged, there are no draft day deals to get the Steelers whatever pick they want. Steelers would only have draft day freedom to trade Bell for any pick, if Bell is signed to a contract and is not tagged.

So if Bell is tagged and the Steelers want a pick in this year’s draft, they need to make a deal with a team before the draft, or before that team picks in the first round. If the Steelers make a draft day deal with a team that already picked, the Steelers would get that team’s 2019 and 2020 first round picks. This is also the rule if the Steelers trade Bell after the draft. So if Cleveland picked their player with their #1 pick, and are making a deal with the Steelers when they are on the clock for their #4 pick, the Steelers would not get their #4 pick, they would get Cleveland’s 2019 and 2020 first round draft picks, and Cleveland would select another player at #4. The only way the draft could get interesting, is if a team was set to draft a player like Saquon Barkley, the multifaceted RB from Penn State, and miss him. That team may be willing to negotiate with the Steelers to get Bell for this year and next year’s first round picks, if they haven’t picked yet in the first round.

Conversely, if Bell isn’t signed and the draft is over. Teams can then submit offers. A team like the Patriots could make an offer that the Steelers don’t match, then the Steelers don’t have Bell and have to wait a year to get the Pat’s first pick. That would create a talent vacuum at RB for a year, unless James Connor returns 100% from his MCL surgery. So in this situation the franchise tag could work against the Steelers’ plans.

Le’Veon Bell’s choices:

We’ve gone over the Steelers’ options, now it’s time to go over Bell’s options. Bell has the option to sign a long term contract before the season starts. If he can’t reach a deal with the Steelers and is tagged non-exclusively, he can do the following:

     1. Work out a new contract with the Steelers

     2. Sign the tag

     3. Negotiate a deal with his agent and another NFL team

     4. Hold out part of the year

     5. Hold out the entire year

If tagged Bell has until July 15th to negotiate a new contract. If no contract or offer sheet is signed before that date, Bell’s main option is to play the 2018 season under the terms of the franchise tag. He could also sign a 1 year contract with the Steelers under different terms, but the terms would have to be mutually agreed upon and probably would include a provision to avoid a future tag. Any negotiation after July 15th can only be a 1 year contract.

Bell didn’t sign his tag last year until training camp ended, so I wouldn’t expect him to sign anytime before the end of training camp. That is a benefit tagged players have. They don’t have to go through the rigors of training camp if they don’t want to, and can use that time to get into football shape on their own. If he and his agent negotiate a deal with another team and an offer is made, he gets a long term contract with a new team, or with the Steelers if they match it. Bell wants a long term contract, so either option should be fine with him.
What if Bell holds out?

I know Le’Veon stated that holding out is an option, and it is. Now if he holds out into the regular season, his options become limited. Bell can not get a long term contract after July 15th, so holding out into the regular season will not get him a long term contract. The Steelers do not negotiate contracts during the season, so if Bell’s holdout lasts into the regular season, the Steelers would not negotiate at all. Bell’s only intent of holding out into the season is to shorten his season, so it would be up to Bell to determine the duration of his holdout. Holding out the entire year has been done before by a franchise player. In 1997 Sean Gilbert, the defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, held out an entire year. Washington then retagged him the following year and the Carolina Panthers signed him to an offer sheet in April 1998, and received 2 first round draft picks, by declining to match the offer. In 1998 defensive tackle Dan WIlliams held out the entire year when Kansas City tagged him. He signed a long term contract with the Chiefs the following year the day before free agency in 1999. So if a holdout happens for an entire year, it appears that the player is not paid the tagged amount, and the tag can then be reused the following season, as Washington did in 1999.

One factor for Bell to consider is by holding out for an entire year in a player’s prime, it also hurts that player from producing great numbers that could help lead to a Hall of Fame career. That is a tough thing to give up for any competitive player, especially one who wants to be the best. So by holding out an entire year, Bell probably does not gain free agency, and does not get paid. So this strategy would not be the best for his financial and career interests.

Final Thoughts:

Worst case, I would tend to think that Bell could hold out a few games, and then come back to play out his franchise tag. This way he can still maximize his productivity and his one year salary. The contract is fully guaranteed once it is signed. So the Steelers would have to pay $14.4M whether he plays 16 games or 6 games. The longest Bell could hold out, if he still wanted the 2018 season to count, is mid November.

One final option that can be used by the Steelers is for them to rescind the franchise tag. Which means if Bell does not sign the franchise contract, the Steelers can pull the offer at any time. This would immediately make Bell a free agent, and any team can bid on his services. I doubt this option ever occurs, since the Steelers would not gain anything by doing this, and conversely Bell would probably receive a much lower contract than one signed at the beginning of free agency.

I do think the Steelers want to sign Bell to a multiyear contract, since they made an offer last year, that was turned down. Will having this past year’s $12M make the new contract offer more enticing with about the same guaranteed money? It is up to Bell if he wants to sign the franchise tag, and if he doesn’t he may hold out, but I think he is too competitive to hold out the entire season. There is very little to gain by either side, for doing that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *