The Steelers are expected to apply the franchise tag to Bell for the second consecutive year now that both sides blew through a soft February 20 deadline to get a long-term deal done. A second franchise tender will pay Bell about $14.5 million in 2018. Bell played for the one-year, $12.1 million franchise tender last season; before that, he essentially worked for spare change plus tips under the terms of his four-year rookie contract.
Bell rushed for 1,291 yards last season. He led the NFL with 321 carries. He led all running backs with 85 receptions and finished second to Todd Gurley with 1,946 scrimmage yards. With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense would have twiddled its thumbs through most afternoons if Bell were not there to absorb 25 touches per game.
The Steelers work Bell like a rented wood chipper. But they have been reluctant to lock him into a long-term deal because, you see, workhorse running backs age quickly. Bell is trapped in a circular argument and can’t get out.
Bell just turned 26 years old a few days ago, making him young by human standards but edging him into the middle-aged demographic for franchise running backs. The only running backs over age 26 to rush for more than 1,000 yards last season were LeSean McCoy (29) and Mark Ingram (28), and Ingram’s early-career workload was moderate, making him a “young 28.” Bell has been a plow horse since his rookie season, with a 2015 MCL tear adding some extra wear-and-tear that makes signing him to a long-term contract an even higher-risk investment.
So the Steelers are shrewdly paying him as they go. If they tag him for $14.5 million in 2018, Bell will either grind out another 1,900 scrimmage yards or start to wear down like an old drill bit. If he wears down, the Steelers can just replace him next year. If he posts another All-Pro-caliber season, Bell hits the 2019 free-agent market as a 27-year-old with even more mileage, making him an even riskier investment.
The Steelers could even franchise Bell for a third straight year in 2019. But after another 400-touch season, they won’t have to, because potential suitors will read his odometer and try to lowball him. And if Bell regresses or gets hurt, they won’t want to.
Bell was a second-round pick in 2013. His four-year rookie contract paid him a total of roughly $4 million in bonuses and salary. That contract was non-negotiable by order of the collective bargaining agreement, so when Bell finished second in the NFL in scrimmage yards in 2014 (2,215 yards) and third in 2016 (1,884), Bell could only keep grinding out the production and waiting for free agency.
But the Steelers tagged Bell at the end of his rookie contract last season. The tag brought an immediate pay raise, which placed Bell among the five highest-paid running backs in the NFL. That sounds great, except a) Bell almost certainly deserved to be THE highest-paid running back after his 2016 season; and b) running backs are the lowest-paid players in major American professional sports, once you adjust for their fame/profile, injury risk and career length.
Bell is now a sixth-year pro, a core contributor to a perennial contender and one of the NFL’s most recognizable superstars. Yet he has still never had the chance to freely negotiate the terms of his employment. And Bell may never hit the open marketplace until he has used up nearly all of his market value.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of getting professionally screwed.
Bell is not alone, of course. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald doesn’t even enjoy the boost that comes from a franchise tender. Donald will play for the $6.8 million, fifth-year option in his rookie contract this season. But as a first-round pick, Donald earned much more than Bell in the early years of his deal, and top defensive tackles also receive $80-$115 million contracts once they reach free agency (see: Ndamukong Suh, Fletcher Cox, Kawann Short, etc.). Donald’s payday will someday come.
And then there’s Kirk Cousins, franchised twice after his rookie contract by Washington, with the team threatening a third-straight tagging because it now appears more devoted to technicalities and spite than winning. As a quarterback, Cousins earns millions of dollars more than Bell every time he’s tag-slapped, and his earning potential extends until his mid-to-late 30s.
The NFL’s pay structure is flawed in many ways, but it hits workhorse running backs the hardest.
The same analytics that dissuade teams from paying veteran running backs also discourage them from drafting running backs high in the first round, baking their reduced earning potential right into their shortened careers. Most of Bell’s peers now operate out of committee backfields, which at least align their relatively low salaries with their workload and injury risk, but the Steelers milk Bell for every carry his legs can handle.
The Steelers could actually benefit by offering Bell a multiyear contract and prorating some of the money into the future to create cap wiggle room. But the Steelers are notoriously stingy with bonuses and strict about their budgets. If they do offer some 11th-hour deal, it won’t be close to what Bell could garner on the open market, because it does not have to be.
Bell can hold out through Labor Day, like he did last summer. The Steelers won’t budge. They don’t have to. Bell will eventually show up and perform, because the only thing less marketable than being an aging, overworked running back is an aging, overworked running back who’s perceived as a malcontent. He can mull retirement, but that’s a bluff the Steelers are willing to call when running back labor is cheap and plentiful in the draft.
Bell reportedly wanted to be paid as much as a top running back and a No. 2 receiver combined last year. That’s silly, but pie-in-the-sky starting points for negotiations often are. Bell has also quipped that it would take $100 million for him to play for the Jets. Also silly, because in a league where Jimmy Garoppolo gets $137 million after seven starts, franchise running backs max out at about $40 million.
But Bell would reset the entire market if not for the franchise tag. The Browns employ Todd Haley (the play-caller who worked Bell like a borrowed tractor), have a need for a difference-maker and security blanket at running back and more money than they can reasonably spend this offseason. The Jets also have cash to burn and the need for a workhorse who can take heat off a rookie quarterback, and they could probably talk Bell down from nine digits. The 49ers just dropped a cartoon safe on Garoppolo’s head and still have enough dough left over to blow the lid off any Steelers offer for Bell if they want to. The Buccaneers just parted ways with Doug Martin and have over $70 million in cap space burning a hole in their pockets.
Bell would easily fetch over $50 million in this market, much of it in a guaranteed upfront lump sum, so teams wouldn’t have to fret about overpaying a 30-year-old geezer in 2022.
But there will be no bidding war for his services, because the system is essentially designed to carry top running backs from rookie contract through franchise tags to the brink of retirement, and the Steelers have figured out the system.
So unless the Steelers suddenly extend Bell (unlikely) or jettison their rights to him in a fit of thriftiness (slightly more likely), Bell is professionally, financially, royally screwed. And there is not a thing he can do about it except keep working his tail off.