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Pros, Cons to Using Transition Tag on Le’Veon Bell

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The Le’Veon Bell saga might not done unraveling in Pittsburgh.

Just hours before Super Bowl LIII kicked off, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Pittsburgh Steelers are still considering using the transition tag on running back Le’Veon Bell.

Bell, who skipped the entire 2018 season to preserve himself in preparation for free agency, was originally tagged in 2017 and this past season in hopes of agreeing to a long-term deal. However, the Steelers were unwilling to give the guaranteed amount of money Bell had hoped for ($60 million was the rumored report) despite offering him deals that would have made Bell by far the highest back in the league.

When Bell failed to appear at the team facility in time to be eligible to play during the 2018 season, all bridges appeared to be burned between Bell and the Steelers.

Yet the desire for Bell to stay in Pittsburgh still appears to be in play. Through off-season negotiations, Bell took to social media on many occasions in reassuring everybody he wanted to be in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career, and Pittsburgh’s front office regurgitated the same message during negotiations. Even up to late November, both camps made pushes for a deal.

The Steelers cannot officially tag Bell until Feb. 19, and would have until March 5 to make their decision before free agency begins.

Should the Steelers tag Bell and re-enter contract negotiations, or would they be better off officially cutting ties with the former second round pick?

The case of “The city of Pittsburgh vs Le’Veon Bell” is now in session.

What is the transition tag?

It’s a guarantee you’ve heard the words “Bell/Tag” in the same sentence enough times to make your head spin, but what exactly are people referring to? In the NFL, franchises have the option to use three different franchise tags on impeding players set to become free-agents in order to prevent them from leaving the team: exclusive, non-exclusive and transition tags can only be used once per year by each team.

Le’Veon Bell was designated with franchise tags in 2017 and 2018, both of which were exclusive tags. Exclusive tags indicate the player can only negotiate with their current club and no other team. The player is guaranteed a one-year deal that represents an average of the top five salaries at his position for that current season, or 120 percent of his previous season’s salary, whatever number is higher.

The non-exclusive tag would pay the player the top five salaries of said position over the previous five seasons. That figure is then compared to the percentage of salary cap being used per season. If a player is designated with the non-exclusive tag, they are allowed to enter negotiations with another club. Should another team offer them a contract, the original team (the Steelers in this scenario) would either have the right to match the offer and retain the player, or refuse to match the offer and receive two first round picks from the signing team.

The transition tag works similar to the non-exclusive tag: Tagged player is able to seek other options in free agency, and original team would have the chance to match an offer that’s made. The differences? No compensation is given if the team decides to not match an offer, and the salary is an average of the top ten players at the given position if the player is on the roster for the following year.

Why the transition tag, and not the non-exclusive tag?

The Steelers essentially don’t believe teams will be willing to fork over two first round picks for Le’Veon Bell and his services, and thus favor the transition tag over the non-exclusive tag. With the transition tag allowing Bell to test the waters of free agency, the organization is somewhat betting the big money market Bell believes is there isn’t actually there. This would do one of two things:

1. Drive the price down of a potential deal, giving the Steelers a more reasonable price to work with.

2. It would allow other teams, if they wanted, to throw big money at Bell without the risk of giving up two first round picks.

Many people have thrown around a figure in the likes of more than $20 million for Bell’s franchise tag. This would be the case due to Bell being franchise tagged a third season. However, since the transition tag is considered a separate entity, this would not be the case.

So, what’s the number the Steelers would have to pay?

This is where things get… wonky. Here’s what Schefter said in his most recent article about Bell and the potential tag situation:

“There also is a battle brewing between the NFL and the NFL Players Association over the value of what the transition tag would be on Bell if the Steelers did use it. Bell and the NFLPA will argue that the transition tag is close to $14.5 million based on the escalating value of tags, and the Steelers and the NFL will say it’s closer to $9.5 million because Bell sat out this past season.”

If the Steelers do indeed transition tag Bell, this appears it will be only be the beginning of a battle between the NFL/NFLPA over Bell’s contract.

Pros to using the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell

Here’s where a lot of Steelers fans will be quick to show Bell the door and happily let him walk. No matter your reserved feelings about Bell, it’s undeniable his talent ranks him as not only one of the best running backs in football, but one of the best offensive weapons in the league. Bell’s versatility would be of great use in an offense that at times last season surely could have used another dimension to it.

Using the transition tag would not guarantee Bell would be back in a Steelers uniform. In fact, as stated in the above points, it would further encourage teams to approach Bell since they would not owe the Steelers any compensation should they decide to not match a deal. If you wanted Bell out-of-town, the transition tag is your best chance depending on how the dominoes fall.

Furthermore, rather than letting Bell simply walk, at the bare minimum it would let the Steelers see if any offers would be in the realm of possibility for them. In a league where the running back position is devaluing by the second, it’s more probable than not Bell does not see the money he oh so desires.

Why does applying the transition tag make sense? In a best case scenario, you are able to sign Bell to a lower contract offer then he originally demanded, and secure what would be the best running back stable in the league with James Conner in the mix. Worst case scenario? You at least see the type of money Bell is offered, laugh, and wave goodbye to Le’Veon with no repercussions.

Cons to using the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell

Haven’t we had enough of this headache? You don’t need to pay Bell a significant amount of money when a backfield of James Conner and Jaylen Samuels virtually replaced him for fractions of the money Bell is seeking. We can also factor in the drama, off-field issues, health concerns and age (turns 27 this month) for wanting a new deal to be taken off the table.

In what will have been three years of failed contract negotiations between the Steelers and Bell’s camp, it’s evident they simply don’t see eye-to-eye. That’s fine, business works that way often times. However, if you’re very sure you’re not going to reach a deal, why place a tag on Bell that would not let you get any compensation back for him? If the Steelers let Bell walk without a tag, they would receive what is estimated to be a third round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Additionally, if you wish for Bell to remain in Pittsburgh, the transition tag won’t do much for you. The non-exclusive tag, while extremely expensive, would almost guarantee Bell stays in Pittsburgh due to teams likely not forking over two first round picks to attain Bell. Let’s not forget, teams have until mid-July to negotiate a new deal, so the upwards of $20 million Bell would be looking at would drop down to reasonable prices, should both camps agree on a deal.

With Bell’s unused $14.5 million being rolled into this year’s salary cap, the Steelers can now cleanly move on from Bell if he still seeks the money he desires. After no-showing for the 2018 season, failing to communicate with his teammates, and being an overall negative distraction to the Steelers organization during his time in Pittsburgh, it might just be time to cut the tie with Bell loose. Get your compensatory pick and build your defense some more.

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