PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell felt he would be settling if he took the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offer during franchise tag negotiations, the All-Pro running back told ESPN on Monday.
Bell was hopeful that a deal would be finalized by the 4 p.m. ET deadline but said the two sides weren’t particularly close. Bell confirmed that he will play on the $12.12 million franchise tag but isn’t sure when he’ll sign his tender or report to camp, which begins July 27.
“It’s a little frustrating, but it’s a business,” said Bell, who declined to comment on the particulars of the Steelers’ offer or his own projection of his worth. “I’m not in a rush to sign for something I’m not valued at if I feel I’m worth more than what they are offering me.”
Bell said the negotiations with the Steelers weren’t personal and that the team didn’t try to knock him for his health history — including multiple knee injuries and groin and hamstring ailments — during the process. He remains optimistic that the sides can reach an extension after the season.
The way Bell sees it, he’s a standard-bearer for a stagnate running back market. The Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy is currently the league’s highest-paid running back at about $8 million per season. That means Bell, like his running style, must be patient.
“The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” Bell said. “We do everything: We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin will be the second-highest-paid running back by base salary, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System. But in terms of “cash value,” Bell’s total is second among running backs behind that of Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette, who will make $18.3 million in cash thanks to his $17.89 million signing bonus.
However, Bell also said his value shouldn’t be constrained by position. He points to his status as the Steelers’ second-most-productive receiver behind Antonio Brown after he caught a combined 158 passes in his past two seasons of 12 games or more.
Bell has amassed 4,791 total yards the past three seasons, second among running backs, despite his missing 13 games due to injury or suspension. He can line up in the slot, out wide or in the backfield. Steelers players voted Bell the team MVP last season. He has missed five games due to suspension for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, but Bell said he has moved past those issues.
“I definitely don’t want to play for anybody else,” Bell said of the Steelers. “You never know what will happen. Today was a big eye opener. I’m going to definitely enjoy my best year with the Steelers and be happy with it.”
That begs the question: When will that season officially start? Because he hasn’t yet signed the tag, Bell technically doesn’t have to join the team until Dec. 1, though he wouldn’t get paid the franchise amount. He could sit out part of training camp. Bell said he hasn’t thought that far ahead but added, “I don’t need much” in the way of practices to be in game shape.
“I guess when it comes to camp and doing extra things when I’m training, I can’t be as aggressive as I normally would be because there’s no longevity,” Bell said. “But I’m still going to be out there and be Le’Veon Bell. … The way I train, all it’s going to take for me is a few practices and some game action. I haven’t thought about it that far. I’m game planning today. I was thinking the deal would be done. I’m going to take it day to day and see what happens.”
Bell said he feels healthy coming off groin surgery in March and believes he can post “crazy numbers” with a full 16 games in 2017. Then the same core issue might arise in negotiations.
“I want to be valued,” Bell said.