"I believe I am."
It's fair to refer to it as the most pressing issue facing the Steelers at this stage of the young offseason, because based on the NFL calendar it's the issue the team will have to deal with first. Call it the Le'Veon Bell issue, to attach a name to it, and there would appear to be three choices:
- Sign Bell to a long-term contract.
- Put the franchise tag on him for a second straight year.
- Do nothing and allow him to hit the open market when the free agency period begins with the start of the new league year at 4 p.m. EST on Wednesday, March 14, and then hope that no other team entices him to leave.
With Steelers President Art Rooney II having met the media on Feb. 7, and with General Manager Kevin Colbert doing the same earlier today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, a consensus on the Bell issue certainly seems to have been reached. The only remaining question is whether the Steelers will be able to execute their plan.
"We met with Le'Veon before he left (following the end of the 2017 season), and said we have a strong desire to keep you with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the remainder of your career," said Colbert. "We weren't able to get the long-term deal done last year, but we never closed that door on that possibility for this season. We do know that Le'Veon has been a great player for us. We think he can still be a great player from this point forward, and we would love to have him to be with the Steelers for the rest of his career."
A couple of weeks ago, this is what Rooney had said on the same subject: "We'd like to have a long-term contract with Le'Veon. That is what we hope happens this offseason. I can't get into where he fits in the running back market … It's something with every signing we do, we look at all of the facts. The player on the other side is looking at the same things. The bottom line is can you come together and have a meeting of the minds? That is what we have to work on."
The first deadline, such as it is, is just around the corner, because the first day teams can use the franchise tag or transition tag on free-agents-to-be is Tuesday, Feb. 20, and then teams will have until 4 p.m. EST on Tuesday, March 6 to tag or not to tag.
Even though the NFL hasn't released any of this offseason's applicable numbers, from the franchise tenders for the various positions or what the salary cap is going to be per team for 2018, the Steelers know that tagging Bell will cost them $14.544 million because of the automatic escalator that kicks in when tagging a player for a second time, and every penny would count on their salary cap this year.
That wouldn't seem to be an attractive option because of the cap hit, but Colbert refused to remove it as an option.
"Everybody knows it's an option. It's collectively bargained," said Colbert about the franchise tag designation. "We'll never say we wouldn't use it. We will say our goal is to sign him to a long-term deal. Everybody knows (the franchise tag) is an option. Even if you do tag a player you can still sign him. Again our goal is to be able to sign him to a long-term deal."
Another potential downside to using the franchise tag on Bell again is that he could elect not to sign it and miss all of the offseason program, training camp, and the preseason , which is exactly what he did last year before signing the tender on Sept. 1.
"Le'Veon came in, and we didn't know how he would be after being tagged," said Colbert about how things unfolded in 2017. "He was great. He was great on the field. He was great in the locker room. He didn't disappoint us in any aspect of it. With both sides wanting to get something done (this year), and I believe that is his (desire) as well as ours, I think that certainly aids your ability to get that done."
And so it came to be that when Colbert then was asked whether he is optimistic that a long-term deal with Bell will get done this offseason, the quote at the top is exactly what he said.
"I believe I am."