Skip to main content

Business of Football: The Steelers Should Secretly Want Le’Veon Bell to Hold Out

Le’Veon Bell wants to be paid as a No. 1 running back and a No. 2 receiver, but the Steelers instead have used the RB franchise tag on him. If he sits out part of training camp in protest, all the better for the team as it reduces the wear and tear on his body. You really think he’s going to say no to the $712,000 weekly salary?

The franchise tag deadline has come and gone, spurring no action between Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers or Kirk Cousins and the Redskins. Although some people had idealistic hope, myself included, let’s go behind the curtain to analyze why neither deal had traction.

Lonely Bell

A potential deal between Bell and the Steelers was a nonstarter, largely due to the fact that the marketplace for veteran running backs has fallen off a cliff.

Bell is certainly entitled to a top-of-market contract, but he understandably does not and should not like that market (thus his request to also be paid as a receiver). The 2017 free-agent running back market saw veterans such as Eddie Lacey, Latavius Murray, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch all land contracts at or below $3.5 million on essentially one-year deals. When it comes to NFL money, that is a sobering marketplace.

• THE MMQB 400: Ranking the Best Players in 2017

Bell is both benefiting and suffering from running back contracts in the recent past that are no longer. Per the CBA, franchise tag calculations look back five years— compared to the previous calculation of looking back one year—and, in this case, have brought in the substantial numbers from Peterson’s Vikings deal and Charles’ Chiefs deal, among others, to create the $12.2 million tag number. On the other hand, the market decline for these same players now contributes to the inability of Bell and the Steelers to find common ground.

The highest-earning running backs in 2017 will be Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, due to front-loaded rookie contracts, and veterans DeMarco Murray ($6.25 million) and LeSean McCoy ($6 million). There is simply no upper level market for veteran running backs; with no true data points, and a franchise tag placeholder, this deal never had a chance.

As to a report that Bell wanted to be paid as both a top running back and a No. 2 wide receiver (combined): good luck with that. As to his potentially sitting out training camp, which he’s certainly allowed to do as an unsigned player . . . if I were the Steelers, I would secretly embrace that prospect, because Bell does not need preseason reps, he needs as little contact as possible. Finally, as to any threat of him holding out into the season and turning his back on $712,000 per week, well, please.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.

The Cousins Conundrum

I was really wrong here: I grossly overestimated the mutual interest from both the Redskins and Cousins in getting married rather than continuing to date year-to-year. And despite public protests otherwise from team president Bruce Allen, the Redskins never really wanted to do a deal.

Following the end of negotiations, Allen curiously released a statement noting he offered “the highest fully guaranteed amount upon signing for a quarterback in NFL history [$53 million]” yet Cousins decided to “play on a year-to-year basis,” as if to say, We tried more than they did! Just like my background, Allen was an agent before moving to management and would know that his statement was a team spin of facts that masked the true value of the offer.

Cousins was to earn (and will make) $24 million this year per the franchise tag. Thus, the Redskins offer of $53 million guaranteed was an additional guarantee of $29 million while adding five contract years to the existing year. The $29 million is not a coincidental number: the transition tag number next year from the Redskins—a scenario certainly in play—is $28.8 million, a bit under the Redskins’ additional guarantee. Unlike with a transition tag, however, Cousins would be saddled with four additional years under the proposed deal.

The Best of Peter King's Beernerdness

SI Recommends

Despite Allen’s passive-aggressive actions, Cousins, who has a preternaturally kind disposition, took the high road—something that helps his likability but hurts him in business. Allen and the Redskins have known for two years that they can negotiate aggressively with Cousins without fearing repercussions of discontent.

Further, the $24 million tag number was problematic. The most recent data point, Derek Carr’s contract, included $40 million of initial guarantees yet had a “starting point” of $1 million, the last scheduled year of Carr’s rookie contract. For Cousins’s contract to be apples-to-apples in comparison to Carr’s, it would have had to be $23 more than Carr in initial guarantees ($63 million). The combination of Carr’s deal and the high tag number made a deal here unlikely.

Thus, the on-again, off-again—mostly off—dance between the Redskins and Cousins will resume anew in February. And, despite a narrative of Cousins’s having leverage, we may never know his true free-agent value. After this season, he will have been in the NFL for six years, with three expiring contracts, and never been able to talk to another team. This is the continuing power of the NFL management tool of the tag. Cousins’s future is still uncertain, and the system has allowed for it.

Show Me the Money

Last week, 250 aspiring agents paid a nonrefundable fee of $2,500 to take an NFLPA agent exam that, if passed, would allow them to represent NFL players. The pass rate will likely fall into the 50-60% range, with those passing becoming licensed to compete with an existing group of almost 900 certified agents to try and represent NFL players (with new and annual union fees).

Agents and the NFLPA have had mixed relations, with the union repeatedly discussing lowering maximum agent fees (the maximum fee is now 3% for agents, down from 4% a couple of years ago) that cut into agents’ margins. While the union talks about ways to cull the herd, another 250 are applying for a seat at the table. There is no shortage of aspiring Jerry McGuires.

Brandt’s Rant: Too Early for the ‘S’ Word

In the latest edition of the NFL summer series “How NFL contracts pale compared to other sports”—something I’ve addressed in recent columns—Richard Sherman’s influential voice has weighed in, suggesting NFL players will only make meaningful gains if they strike. The combination of Sherman’s gravitas and the word “strike” (and a tweet endorsement from the NFLPA) amplified the remarks.

I admire Sherman, a contributor here at The MMQB and fellow Stanford alumnus, for his refreshing thoughtfulness about bigger issues than football. My sense, however, is that the ‘S’ word—strike—is premature. There’s still 40% (four seasons worth) of the current CBA still remaining. Striking should always be an option, but not one to telegraph to NFL owners as a surrender on bargaining four years away.

MMQB: NFL Training Camps Begin, and So Does Competition for the Toughest Non-QB Job

I will obviously have continued thoughts on the next round of bargaining, but the key with multi-issue bargaining is prioritizing and negotiating with clear consensus and focus. If priorities are jumbled, NFL owners will sense blood in the water and seize the confusion.

As for Sherman, he should absolutely continue to be a key voice for the players going forward, as should other stars. In my opinion, part of the recent success of the NBAPA has been having stars such as Chris Paul and LeBron James involved in bargaining. Sherman is a voice that owners need to hear.

The process continues; with many chapters ahead before the specter of a strike rears its menacing head.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at