The 2016 leader in scrimmage yards per game will now earn $12.12 million in 2017, making him the highest-paid player at his position by over $4 million in terms of average annual value. While that’s a lot of money, Bell made it clear he was hoping to sign a long-term deal instead of taking the one-year agreement.
Pittsburgh expressed it too was hoping to lock up its star running back, calling the lack of a new contract “unfortunate” in a team statement and announcing it will resume negotiation efforts after the season.
Bell and the Steelers were reportedly close to coming to an agreement, but with a lowly running back market currently in place, Bell didn’t hear a number high enough to drop his lucrative, one-year salary, putting both parties in an uneasy situation.
For the Steelers, the money shouldn’t be too much of a worry as they still have over $15 million in cap room with Bell’s franchise tag on the books. Where it could cause a problem in 2017 is actually getting Bell on the field and keeping him there.
As he has not technically signed his tag, Bell is permitted to not report to the team until Dec. 1, though he wouldn’t be paid his full salary and has also vowed to have his “best year” with the Steelers in 2017. Bell is expected to skip some of training camp to avoid an injury risk, which could work out fine as he has barely played during preseasons so far in his career.
Bell appears to be ready to ball out this season, hoping to take advantage of a rarer healthy, 16-game schedule, but what happens if he picks up a nick, as running backs are known to do? The 25-year-old wouldn’t be smart to play through injuries with only a one-year contract, so the Steelers may be forced to play without their star rusher due to an issue he might normally ignore. And as a running back, that could hinder his play dramatically, while leaving him susceptible to major injuries incurred by rushers regularly.
On the other hand, for the Steelers, if Bell can stay healthy and continue progressing his production at the All-Pro pace he has been setting, they could be forced to dig deep into their pockets. Bell was a scrimmage yards machine last season and predicts big things to come in what will hopefully be his second career 16-game campaign.
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Bell wants to reset the running back market, and if he waits a little while longer, he’ll have some help in his quest. David Johnson will require an extension soon with his rookie deal done after 2018. Devonta Freeman is currently looking to be paid as an “elite” back. Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon’s rookie deals expire after 2019, and eventually Ezekiel Elliott is going to demand the world from the Cowboys.
If the Michigan State product does have another elite season, he will be in a great position to demand the market-setting contract he desires as a 26-year-old playing in his prime. If the Steelers don’t quite reach his target number but still want him on the roster, a second straight franchise tag (a la Kirk Cousins) would pay Bell over $14.5 million in 2018.
Bell said Monday that he wants to continue his career in Pittsburgh, but left the door open for possible exploration into free agency.
“I definitely don’t want to play for anybody else,” Bell told ESPN about the Steelers. “You never know what will happen. Today was a big eye-opener.”
The Steelers don’t want to lose the best running back in the league, but the best running back in the league wants to get paid like it. If Bell can stay healthy, he will have a great shot at reaching his goal and resetting the market for his position, but if he will be able to do it with the Steelers, it could be a different battle altogether.
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