With Kirk Cousins and Trumaine Johnson widely expected to play out their second consecutive franchise tags, all eyes will be on the Pittsburgh Steelers' negotiations with Le'Veon Bell that are pressing against the 4 p.m. ET deadline.
Franchise tags are often a deadline-fueled standoff, and this appears to be no different.
The Steelers would prefer to complete a long-term deal with Bell, but they will want to keep the money reasonable.
He's expected to play on a $12.1 million tag or an extension with a per-year average of something close to that.
Either way, Bell will soon be the league’s highest-paid back, surpassing LeSean McCoy's $8 million per year.
Here are a few key themes surrounding Bell's negotiation:
The Triple B's: Internally, the Steelers want to keep their own triangle offense of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Bell together for a while. That is a factor in negotiations. But while Big Ben and Brown are playing on contracts worth up to $168 million, Bell was arguably the best player of the three last year while averaging 157 total yards per game, third most ever for a tailback. That should aid Bell’s negotiations as a potential offset of past suspensions and injuries.
Finally healthy: Bell has recovered from offseason groin surgery and should be ready for training camp. The Steelers want to preserve Bell’s health, but don’t expect them to limit his carries -- he touched the ball 28 times per game last year, often carrying the offense in the process. Bell has missed playoff action because of injuries in three straight years, but the Steelers don’t consider him brittle. At age 25, Bell should hold up for at least the first few years of a mega deal.
"[The Steelers] know I’m not a bonehead": That’s what Bell once told me about his back-to-back drug suspensions. Bell believes his problems with marijuana are behind him. But the Steelers can protect themselves just in case by loading much of Bell’s money into a signing bonus. That way, a player under the league’s substance-abuse program must pay back a portion of the bonus for each game suspended. The Steelers often utilize big signing bonuses to stay in control of the money.
Both sides have bargaining chips: The $12.1 million tag is a huge number for a running back, and in 2018 it mushrooms to $14 million. The totals help Bell because a long-term deal would be more manageable than $26 million over two years of franchise tagging. The Steelers can point to their offensive production in Bell’s absence. The Steelers went 10-5 the past two seasons while Bell was hurt or suspended, a stretch during which DeAngelo Williams scored 14 touchdowns. The Steelers know how good Bell is, but they also have a high-level offensive line.
Locker room reception: One thing that resonates in the Steelers' locker room is that Bell works harder than just about anybody and was unanimously the team MVP last year. A faction of the locker room might be confused if other key players get paid and Bell does not. Teams don’t negotiate through the locker room, of course, but the players watch these things closely.