Three weeks into the season and star running back Le’Veon Bell has still failed to sign his franchise tender with the Steelers. Now apparently the Steelers are open to a trade according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Whenever big news like this appears a number of questions pop up so I thought it made some sense to just get into the difficulties of actually trading Bell.
The heart of Bell’s holdout is that he wants to preserve his body for 2019 when he is likely to become an unrestricted free agent. There are different interpretations of what that means for him in 2018. My interpretation is that if he holds out the entire season the Steelers would still be required to use the third franchise tag (or less restrictive transition tag) on him. Other interpretations feel that he has to sign by the end of the 10th week of the season in order to get the third franchise tag treatment. So lets go with the safer must report for week 11 option since that would seem to cover all bases.
While Bell and the Steelers have likely reached a point of no return thus far Bell’s decision has nothing to seemingly do with the Steelers themselves. Never has their been a report of “trade me or pay me” or anything like that. They made an offer. He turned it down. Now he wants to be as healthy as possible for free agency. That should not change with a new team.
The Steelers have no ability to trade the rights to Bell. For a trade to happen Bell has to sign his tender, which means he has to officially report and be ready to play. The deadline for a trade is October 31, which is two weeks before the week 11 deadline, so that means in any trade a team is going to have to convince him to suit up for them earlier than that date and before a trade. A new team is still not allowed to sign Bell to a long term contract. That can increase his salary for the year to perhaps reward him for the extra weeks, but the heart of the problem for Bell remains. That should make a trade tricky.
Ever since college players began holding out of bowl games I wondered how teams might react to players who “aren’t all in” when it comes to closing out a contract year. Financially it is beneficial, unless he was going to have an all world kind of performance, for a player to not participate in playoff games, where the earnings are very little, or worthless end of season games. Injuries, particularly to a running back, can be incredibly detrimental. Should a team question what kind of effort Bell would give? I would imagine they should be even if he assures them and actually does have every intention of going all out. There is also the worry that he isn’t in football shape after such a long time away and that minor things like strains could keep him out as soon as he tries to go full speed.
The market itself could also be impacted by system. What makes Bell special is that he plays essentially every down and is a focal point of an offense. He is a 100 target, 275 carry kind of player. You can build an offense around that but if your offense thus far is built on something entirely different are you really getting the bang for the buck on Bell? Probably not.
I think this all factors into trade compensation which I can’t believe would be much, at least initially. I have to think any trade would be conditional. Conditional on performance this season and then conditional on whether or not he re-signs with the team. Performance would likely be tied to things like total yardage and playoff impact. Re-signing would likely cover any signing prior to the May tender deadlines.
As of today the cost on the salary cap to acquire Bell is $11,977,412. That number drops by $855,529 each week. At the trade deadline it would be $7,699,765.
Right now there are only 8 teams that could afford Bell without reworking contracts. That list is the Browns, Colts, 49ers, Texans, Titans, Jets, Jaguars, and Cowboys. I would think the Browns, Cowboys, and Jaguars would all be out. The 49ers just lost their QB, so I would cross them off. So that leaves four teams, which isn’t much. Between now and the trade deadline only another 6 will be in a position to do it- the Bengals, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, Buccaneers, and Packers. Id cross off Cincy for the same division reason so that’s about 10 teams. If his goal is to re-sign with the same team the Dolphins and Redskins both have more restrictive cap situations in 2019 so those may be teams he would cross off and remember he holds all the cards so he can veto anyone. There are other teams that can prorate money for other players to do a deal and my guess is that there are only 5 to 8 teams that could not swing it.
It wont be an easy trade. This isnt a certain one year rental. There are going to be questions on desire. There are going to be questions on readiness. There are going to be questions on if it makes long term sense to trade something of value to invest over $15 million a year in a running back which is going to be his price. If they dont want the long term are they at least in a position to gain a comp pick for him the following year? You probably need to find a team really bullish on 2018 that does a great sell job to Bell and his agent.
Here are our estimated cap totals and when the team would likely be able to trade for Bell without restructuring a contract to give you a better idea of the market.
|Team||Cap Space||Earliest Acquisition|
|Cardinals||$7,505,187||Need to create space|
|Lions||$7,386,093||Need to create space|
|Raiders||$7,089,749||Need to create space|
|Chiefs||$6,684,525||Need to create space|
|Ravens||$6,456,111||Need to create space|
|Broncos||$6,289,097||Need to create space|
|Seahawks||$5,934,260||Need to create space|
|Eagles||$5,305,588||Need to create space|
|Falcons||$5,037,131||Need to create space|
|Giants||$4,428,615||Need to create space|
|Patriots||$4,327,223||Need to create space|
|Bears||$4,182,663||Need to create space|
|Panthers||$3,823,990||Need to create space|
|Saints||$3,702,170||Need to create space|
|Rams||$2,344,265||Need to create space|
|Chargers||$1,622,667||Need to create space|
|Vikings||$509,683||Need to create space|
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.