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Updated 7 minutes ago
If any doubt remained, it's now official that the Steelers intend on holding on to Le'Veon Bell.
The organization announced late Monday afternoon that it had placed the franchise tag on the star running back, ostensibly preventing him from hitting the open market at the start of free agency next week.
The Steelers used the exclusive franchise tag on Bell, which is applied by teams less frequently than the nonexclusive tag. Under the exclusive tag, the Steelers are the only team that can negotiate with Bell, who will receive a salary commensurate to the top five running backs in the NFL this season. That figure will be determined by April 21, the end of this year's restricted free-agent signing period.
Under the nonexclusive tag, Bell would have received the average of the top five prior year salaries for running backs, which was pegged at $12 million for this season. Other NFL teams could have tried to sign Bell, while forfeiting two first-round draft picks had the Steelers not matched the offer.
The purpose of the exclusive franchise tag is to make it more expensive for teams, which is why the nonexclusive tag is preferred. But Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the league's highest-paid running back with an anticipated $18 million salary cap hit this year, could have his contract restructured. This could result in a lower salary figure for Bell.
Last year, Peterson made $6 million more than the second highest-paid back.
The Steelers and Bell will attempt to work out a long-term contract that would give Bell added security and more money upfront, while also lowering the 2017 salary-cap hit from the team's point of view.
Two weeks ago, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said that “even if we were to use the tag on Le'Veon, we would certainly want to do something long term and have Le'Veon be a Steeler for life.”
The Steelers have until July 15 to sign Bell to a long-term contract.
Either way, Bell is due a sizable pay increase. In the final year of his rookie contract, Bell received a $853,147 base salary and had a $1,197,347 cap number.
Bell was voted the Steelers' MVP by his teammates this past season when he had 1,884 scrimmage yards (1,268 rushing / 616 receiving) with 75 receptions and nine total touchdowns in 12 games.
While that's a pace that would have set an all-time NFL record for season scrimmage yards, Bell is not without red flags.
He has not started and completed any of his first four NFL seasons – the past three ended via injury and the past two had their start delayed by suspension for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Bell also missed the first three games of his rookie season because of injury.
Bell, who only turned 25 earlier this month, already ranks fifth in Steelers history in rushing yards (4,045), is tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns (26) and is ninth in yards from scrimmage (6,050).
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