Inside the next potential fight between Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers

PITTSBURGH — The NFL’s most compelling contract saga is in a slumber. Le’Veon Bell is in a dimly lit recording studio somewhere in Miami. The Pittsburgh Steelers are debating whether to trade the most productive wide receiver of the past decade. The wounds from Bell’s yearlong holdout over the franchise tag are no longer raw, allowing both sides to weigh their business options.

This brings us to a collectively bargained tool that could intensify the Bell-Steelers divorce to Hollywood levels: the transition tag.

Here’s where things stand. In mid-January, Steelers team president Art Rooney II said, “We don’t have to close any doors” on Bell’s future. On Sunday, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that the team is still considering the transition tag for Bell.

This would add a fascinating layer for the reasons it makes sense, for the reasons it doesn’t and for the contention it would inevitably create.

Placing a cheaper value on Bell after two years of franchise tags that bred little positivity would only widen the gulf between player and team. But nothing is simple with Bell’s contract fight, so perhaps this is a fitting conclusion to a wild 24 months.

Talks with several NFL sources paint the transition tag as the Steelers’ risk-reward plight that could involve the NFLPA, the NFL management council and an independent arbitrator.

Let’s begin with the basics and then crack open the deeper issues involved.

What is the transition tag?

The transition tag is a one-year designation that typically pays less salary than the franchise tag and gives the team the chance to match any offer from another team.

If the Steelers had put the transition tag on Bell two years ago, for example, Bell would have received the average salary among the top 10 players at his position, instead of the top five salaries for franchised players.

A new team can offer a transitioned player a long-term contract after the start of the league year, and the original team — in this case, the Steelers — has five days to match or let the player walk.

When must the Steelers apply the transition tag?

The designating window for franchise or transition players begins Feb. 19. The deadline is 4 p.m. ET March 5.

How much is this year’s transition tag worth for Bell?

Bell has played under one tag, worth $12.1 million in 2017. A previously tagged player of one season is due 120 percent of his previous salary on a new tag, according to the collective bargaining agreement. That would put Bell at $14.5 million.

But the Steelers can argue that Bell’s transition tag is closer to $9.5 million. The logic seems to be that since Bell sat out, the original transition formula resets.

The spirit of the system calls for incremental increases in franchise or transition pay — 120 percent for the second year, 144 percent for the third. If Bell’s holdout prompts the Steelers to utilize gray area to massage tag structure, the NFLPA would fight them on it.

More on that in a minute.

What’s up with the franchise tag? Would the Steelers apply it?

The reason some rule out a third exclusive franchise tag is most likely Article 10, Section 2-B of the CBA, which states that the third tag pays the average of the top five salaries “for players at the position with the highest such average.” The CBA gives an example of kickers on a third tag getting quarterback money.

That would put Bell well over $20 million for 2019. The Steelers won’t pay that. Teams can target Bell on a non-exclusive franchise tag but at the cost of two first-round picks, which no one is paying.

But once again, Bell’s sitting out 2018 can change the interpretation. Section 2 also references salary applicable to the “most recently negotiated player contract,” leaving one industry source believing that Bell’s franchise tag would be $14.5 million again (with the standard 120 percent increase from his 2017 deal).

Either way, Bell must feel confident enough in the language that the Steelers wouldn’t use that tag. Even at $14.5 million, the Steelers must allocate that cap space for a player who isn’t signing.

The threat of Bell sitting out a second year would be very real at that point.

Why is the transition tag a good idea for the Steelers?

It allows them to do two things: keep Bell if they choose and exercise whatever power they have left.

Despite Bell’s holdout that angered dozens of teammates, there’s a faction of the Steelers organization that has a soft spot for Bell. They drafted him and helped him develop into an All-Pro. Walking away from that isn’t easy.

By waiting until the March 5 deadline to tag him, they can drag this out and hold rights for as long as possible, even if the looming offer elsewhere makes posturing moot.

What about the Steelers matching an offer from another team, then trading him?

In theory, a signed player can be traded. Let’s assume Bell would be under contract with the Steelers at that point if he signs the offer sheet matched by Pittsburgh. But many sources I’ve spoken to agree that such a move would violate the spirit of the CBA and the tag process. And why would a new team agree to giving up picks when it can structure an offer it knows the Steelers won’t want to match? If the Steelers balk, they get Bell without draft compensation.

All these scenarios would require major cooperation from Bell’s camp. Based on how 2018 shook out, that would be at least a mild upset.

And who knows, they might keep Bell on a team-friendly deal. Tagging Bell again helps the Steelers control the situation.

Why is the transition tag a bad idea for the Steelers?

The Steelers likely get no draft compensation if they tag him and don’t match an outside offer. It has been written that the Steelers can use the transition as a way to trade Bell. But only Bell actually signing the transition tag can enable a trade, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of NFL contracts.

By doing so, Bell would forfeit his rights and give the Steelers control of where he goes and how he gets there.

That’s not happening with a player with the conviction to sit out a year.

When the Chicago Bears transition tagged corner Kyle Fuller last offseason, the Green Bay Packers offered him a four-year, $56 million deal. The Bears matched that deal, but had they refused, they weren’t getting picks from Green Bay.

A league source told me that if a player signs his transition and gets traded to a new team, the franchise tag designation starts all over again, essentially placing Bell in the same franchise vortex he fought to avoid.

Basically, the Steelers and another team would have to set up one elaborate wink-wink deal with Bell to execute a sign-and-trade.

Then how do the Steelers get draft picks out of this?

The cleanest way remains letting Bell walk to earn a compensatory pick for 2020. A lucrative contract for Bell could equal a third-round pick.

Why is Bell prepared for the transition tag?

Bell told ESPN in October that the Steelers told him over the summer that they would transition tag him. That was before Bell abandoned the season, of course. But Bell said he welcomes the transition because he can negotiate in earnest and get what he considers a fair contract.

If the Steelers place the transition tag on Bell and push for the lower number, how will this play out before free agency?

The NFLPA would likely file a grievance against the NFL’s management council alleging fraudulent use of the tag. That would spark a special master hearing to happen in early March before free agency. An independent arbitrator would handle it.

Who wins in that case?

It’s hard to say that either side comes out of this mess victorious. If arbitration rules in Bell’s favor, he gets the higher number he most likely won’t play on anyway. If the Steelers win the ruling, they gain precedent but not much more.

And both sides move on, exhausted.

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