The Steelers have been vocal about wanting to keep Le'Veon Bell in a Steelers uniform, and they moved in that direction when they placed the franchise tag on him. With the designation, Bell receives a one-year tender for an amount that is the average of the salaries of the five highest-paid running backs in the league. The Steelers had until March 1 to place the tag on Bell, and he would have become an unrestricted free agent on March 9 if something wasn't done.
Both Steelers President Art Rooney II and General Manager Kevin Colbert have expressed an interest in doing a long-term deal with Bell, and this gives the two sides time to work out a deal. The deadline for the sides to come to a long-term contract is July 15. If a long-term contract is not worked out by that deadline, Bell would have to play the 2017 season at the amount determined by the franchise player designation.
Bell, the Steelers second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, has carried the ground game since his arrival in Pittsburgh, smashing records along the way. In his four seasons Bell has rushed for 4,045 yards, with 26 touchdowns, and has caught 227 passes for 2,005 yards and five touchdowns. He currently is fifth on the team's all-time rushing list with 4,045 yards, and is closing in on Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson, who is in fourth place with 4,381 yards.
Bell finished the 2016 regular season with 261 carries for 1,268 yards, a 4.9-yard average, and seven touchdowns. He also had 75 receptions for 616 yards, and 8.2-yard average, and two touchdowns. Bell was also selected to the Pro Bowl this year and won Steelers MVP honors.
Coach Mike Tomlin saw huge growth in Bell in 'all areas' this season, and said he has developed since 2014 when he put up the biggest numbers of his career to date.
"Understanding of the game, not necessarily what it is he does, but how it fits in the bigger picture," said Tomlin. "The intellectual conversations with him are much different today than they were then. Just understanding how to play the position, the nuances of the position, the protection of the ball, the protection of himself. He is a guy that has got some talent, but equally or more important than that he has a desire to be great and a work ethic to boot. He is a much better conditioned athlete today that he was in 2014. I mean it when I say all areas."
Bell became the fastest player in NFL history to reach 3,000 rushing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in his career, doing so in just 38 games. He reached 4,000 yards rushing in his 47th career game, the second fewest games to do so in Steelers' history (Jerome Bettis, 44). Bell set a Steelers' record for fewest games to hit the 5,000 yards from scrimmage mark, and reached 6,000 yards from scrimmage in his 47th career game, which is tied for the second fewest games in NFL history to do so.
"We always knew he had an awesome talent for running the ball, but I think what is most impressive is his blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield," said Ben Roethlisberger. "He is an every down back and we can use him for every situation. I think that is what is most impressive."
Bell was voted the Steelers' MVP by his teammates for his performance this year, which also included a strong stretch run. Bell was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month for December/January, despite only playing in four of the five possible games.
Bell rushed for an NFL leading 569 yards during the span and rushed for four touchdowns. He had 18 receptions for 179 yards, a 9.9-yard average, and one touchdown reception. Bell had 748 total yards from scrimmage, which also led the NFL, averaging 5.8 yards every time he touched the ball and a league-leading 187.0 yards from scrimmage per game during the time.
Bell set a Steelers' single-game record when he rushed for 236 yards on a career-high 38 carries in the 27-20 win over the Bills. Bell also had the hat trick, scoring three touchdowns for the first time in his career, and tying a team record with the three rushing scores. Bell added four receptions for 62 yards, for a total of 298 yards from scrimmage, ranking second in team history in yards from scrimmage in a single game. Bell single-handedly outgained the Bills with his 298 yards from scrimmage, compared to the Bills 275 yards of total offense.
"Usually when we get to the end of the year, the weather starts to kind of affect games a little bit," said Bell. "Over the course of the year the offensive line continually got better, we got more confident in the run and every play that was called we just felt like it could work."
In his four seasons Bell has rushed for 4,045 yards, with 26 touchdowns, and has caught 227 passes for 2,005 yards and five touchdowns.
Bell's 2016 statistics are below, and his full stats are available here.