Le’Veon Bell had been keeping practically everyone in the dark, including his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates, about his plans for the 2018 season until Monday. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that Bell intends to return to the Steelers during their Week 7 bye in order to be ready for a Week 8 contest on October 28 against the Cleveland Browns. Presumably, Bell will be signing for $9,410,824, the prorated amount of his $14.544 million franchise tender.
Steelers reportedly have been listening to trade offers for Bell. The trading deadline is 4pm eastern time on October 30.
Several factors complicate a trade. Franchise players who don’t sign long term by the mid-July deadline are prohibited from signing a multi-year contract until after the 2018 regular season, which ends on December 30. This restriction also applies to any team acquiring Bell in a trade. Since players with unsigned tenders, like Bell, can’t be traded until under contract, he essentially has veto power on being dealt for the time being. He loses the control once under contract unless he specifically negotiates a no-trade clause into the one year deal he signs for the remainder of the 2018 season.
The inability to sign Bell long-term in conjunction with a trade limits the draft choice compensation the Steelers can get in return. The most Pittsburgh should reasonably expect is a third round pick considering Bell may only be a short term rental for a handful of games. A third round compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL draft is what Pittsburgh would hope to get if Bell left via free agency during the offseason.
The acquiring team would have Bell’s exclusive negotiating rights from the end of the regular season until March 11, when the two day negotiation period prior to the start of free agency where agents can have contract discussions with the entire league about their impending free agent clients begins. Designating Bell as a franchise or transition player in 2019 would also be an option for the acquiring team.
One interesting potential trade partner is the Philadelphia Eagles. The defending Super Bowl champions are facing an early crossroads because of a slow start to the season. A loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game would put the Eagles below .500 with a 2-3 record.
Eagles executive vice-president of football operations Howie Roseman has been one of the most active NFL front office executives in the trade market over the last couple of years. Most notably, his wheeling and dealing allowed the Eagles to move up in the 2016 draft to take quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick.
As arguably the NFL’s best dual-threat running back, Bell would add a dimension to Philadelphia’s backfield that doesn’t exist with Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles. Getting Bell out of the AFC in a trade might also be appealing to Pittsburgh.
A team must have enough salary cap room to absorb a player’s current salary in order to make a trade. The Eagles have just over $3.775 million of salary cap room according to NFLPA data. That’s not nearly enough to accommodate the $9.41 million Bell would make under his franchise tag assuming a Week 7 trade. Slightly more than $5.625 million of extra cap space is needed.
Finding a taker for Super Bowl LI MVP Nick Foles would create enough cap room for Bell. Foles doesn’t have the same value as an insurance policy for the Eagles with Wentz returning to the starting lineup two games ago after tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee late last season. Trading Foles in Week 7 would free up just under $6.6 million of 2018 cap space. The Eagles would be approximately $950,000 under the cap with Bell coming on board. $18.8 million of 2019 cap room would be gained by getting Foles’ $20.6 million 2019 cap number off of Philadelphia’s books with a trade.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, there isn’t an obvious landing spot for Foles since the 49ers appear to have confidence in backup quarterback C.J. Beathard taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s out for the season with a torn ACL. The Eagles reportedly turned down a second round pick from the Cleveland Browns for Foles early in the offseason.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is the most logical contract restructure candidate for cap room. His $17.9 million cap number is the largest on the team. Offensive guard Brandon Brooks, tight end Zach Ertz, safety Malcolm Jenkins, and offensive tackle Lane Johnson have already created cap room by restructuring.
Lowering Cox’s $11.5 million base salary to just under $800,000 and releasing a player at the back end of the roster would give the Eagles approximately $5.85 million of additional cap room. That’s barely enough for Bell. The Eagles would have the second tightest cap situation in the NFL behind the Vikings with a just over $200,000 of space.
Cox’s remaining contract years, 2019 through 2022, would each increase by $1.385 million in the restructure. His $22 million 2019 cap number would become $23.385 million. Cox would have the second largest 2019 cap number for a defensive player. His is currently third.
Philadelphia easily has the NFL’s most 2019 cap commitments at $216.5 million with 41 players under contract. The top 51 cap numbers matter under offseason cap accounting rules. The 2019 salary cap will be in the $190 million neighborhood with a similar increase as in recent years.
Trying to keep Bell long term would be a challenge because of his contract demands and other signing priorities. Bell will be looking to supplant Todd Gurley as the NFL’s highest paid running back, whose deal with the Rams averages $14.375 million per year, next offseason. Gurley’s $45 million in guarantees are the most ever in a running back contract. David Johnson’s recent three-year, $39 million extension from the Cardinals has a veteran running back contract record $24,682,500 fully guaranteed at signing.
A third franchise tag at approximately $25 million, the 2019 quarterback number, would be too cost prohibitive. That wouldn’t be the case with the transition designation. The figure would be $11,292,989, which is 120 percent of Bell’s expected 2018 salary with a Week 7 signing. The NFLPA might take the position in a grievance that the 120 percent should be based on Bell’s full $14.544 million 2018 franchise tender. It’s hard to see how the NFLPA would prevail given the precise language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement defining the calculation. Philadelphia would have the right to match an offer sheet from another team with a transition tag but wouldn’t receive any draft choice compensation if matching rights weren’t exercised.
Wentz will be eligible for a new deal at the end of the regular season. Although Wentz will be under contract through the 2020 season once Philadelphia exercises its fifth year option, he could be in line for a new deal during the offseason. Philadelphia has been proactive in locking up core players on rookie contracts well before they could hit the open market. A Wentz deal could average more than Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ league leading $33.5 million per year with security rivaling Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s $100 million in guarantees and $94.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
There are natural exits points with several of Philadelphia’s contracts. For example, declining the 2019 options on Foles and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan while also releasing left tackle Jason Peters would collectively create $36.3 million of cap space. If Foles doesn’t see any more significant game action this season, Philadelphia would also get a $3.25 million cap credit for the incentives he didn’t earn that are currently counting on Philadelphia’s cap. Roseman could continue to play the restructure game if necessary for additional cap space.
An inability to make a trade for Bell wouldn’t necessarily close the door on him playing with the Eagles. Roseman has enough cap flexibility to make a run at Bell during the offseason assuming he’s a free agent. The Eagles wouldn’t give up a 2019 draft pick if able to get Bell this way.
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Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.
You can follow him on Twitter: (@corryjoel)
You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.