Much of the news swirling around the Pittsburgh Steelers organization in recent weeks has surrounded long-term contract extensions. Several players, including running back Le’Veon Bell, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, are candidates for lucrative extensions. Bell is an interesting case and on the surface it seems odd that the Steelers have not committed a long-term contract to their franchise running back.
From Bell’s perspective, he has seen fellow offensive weapon wide receiver Antonio Brown receive a lucrative contract extension and wouldn’t be faulted for thinking he deserved a similar lucrative, long-term deal. However, the Steelers only offered Le’Veon Bell the franchise tag, failing to commit to the running back long term. Bell has pushed for a long-term commitment from the team, but the Steelers have thus far not budged. Bell may be in line for a big contract, as the franchise tag deadline is July 15 and the Steelers will need to act before then to get any sort of a deal done.
While Bell has been a phenomenal and indispensable part of the Steelers since being drafted in 2013, he has rarely been able to put together a full season. He has completed only one full season in his four years as a pro, missing time either due to suspension or injury. His latest injury, a groin problem which limited him in the AFC Championship game and forced him to get offseason surgery, underlines the fragility of the running back position. He has also already suffered two major knee injuries, hyperextending his knee in 2014 and tearing his MCL in 2015. When healthy, Bell has factored into almost every offensive snap. His above average pass catching ability coupled with his patient running style means the Steelers rarely take Bell off the field. DeAngelo Williams, Bell’s backup, rarely sees the field in games which Bell starts. Playing so frequently will wear on any player’s body, and injuries are always a risk.
The Steelers may be weary of committing a long-term contract to Bell because the uncertainty that he will be able to complete a full season. When Bell’s rookie contract expired in the offseason, the franchise tag seemed to be a smart decision from the Steelers organization. The tag would allow the Steelers to keep Bell for another season, and give him the opportunity to put a full season together. If Bell were able to prove he could stay healthy, then a three or four year contract would allow the Steelers to retain Bell until he was 30, around the age when running backs begin to see a drop off in performance. However, it is unwise for Pittsburgh to gamble and give Bell a long term extension this summer without first seeing that Bell can again match his production from the 2014 and 2016 seasons. The Steelers do run the risk of alienating Bell by not placing their faith in a player who, when healthy, has been among the best in the league. From a management perspective, though, guaranteeing a big contract to a player who may not play 16 games every season is a risk that the organization may not be willing to take at this time.