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Grading history: Le’Veon Bell made Steelers case for them

Ex-Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell infamously sat out of the 2018 season due to a contract dispute. Here’s how we would grade the situation.

Once upon a time, when Big Ben was more than just a talking statue and Antonio Brown was threading together Pro Bowl seasons rather than pulling at the thread of sanity, a running back from Michigan State was starting to take the league by storm.

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft in a move that would usher in golden years of success in the ground game but end on a highly controversial note.

After putting together five productive seasons in Pittsburgh, Bell chose to hold out for the entire 2018 season when he and the Steelers organization couldn’t agree on an extension.

Bell was coming off a Pro Bowl and All-Pro year in which he scored a career-high nine touchdowns and recorded his third career 1,000-plus yard campaign, so it was pretty clear where his head was at: he wanted long-term stability and a lucrative contract from the only team he’s ever known.

In March of 2018, the Steelers decided to franchise-tag him for the second straight year. Bell then sat out of all team activities that summer, missed the first nine regular season games, and failed to report to the Steelers on the Nov. 13 deadline to sign the tag.

He was thus ineligible to participate in the 2018 NFL season, and by that point, divorce was rearing its ugly head and Bell and the Steelers were branching out on different paths.

Five years later, here are the grades for each side involved in the ordeal.

Grading the Le’Veon Bell holdout: Steelers get an A-

Whew. The Steelers dodged a bullet there.

Kudos to the Pittsburgh brass for not giving into one player’s demands and instead trusting their gut, even if it took them two franchise tags to uncover the nasty truth.

It’s dangerous and futile to play the “What If?” game, so we’re not going down that route. Had the Steelers handed Bell the contract he was looking for, who knows what would have happened? Those kind of alternate universe scenarios should be reserved for the movies.

Because for all we know, had Pittsburgh taken a bite of the everything bagel and opened their wallets for Bell, they may have opened the Pandora’s box of ruinous possibilities for the franchise.

Instead, the Steelers offered Bell two contracts during negotiations, both of which were reportedly worth less than Bell’s desired amount ($14.5 million annual salary). The two sides remained unable to agree to a long-term solution, causing Pittsburgh to franchise-tag Bell the first time in 2017.

The only reason the Steelers don’t get an A+ for their handling of this situation is because they opted to place the franchise tag on Bell a second time in 2018, even after Bell warned the team he would consider holding out if he was tagged again.

The Steelers may have just been calling Bell’s bluff, but that’s a risky game to play with the team’s top running back and one of the hottest potential commodities on the market. Upon finding out that Bell wasn’t willing to budge on his contract demands one year later, Pittsburgh should have just cut off the thorn in 2018.

Grading the Le’Veon Bell holdout: Bell gets a D

Everyone knows who lost this battle, no matter how much Bell refuses to admit it. He may very well deserve an “F,” but we’re giving him some credit for believing in himself and his inflated value.

The ex-Steeler said two years ago that he doesn’t regret sitting out in 2018 and actually thinks that it helped him in the backend of his career.

Bell told the media:

“I don’t know, it kind of like reset my body. I feel like it’s going to help me for the end of my career, elongate my career.”

By the end of Bell’s time in the NFL, there was just no career left to “elongate.”

Following his holdout, the New York Jets gave Bell a shiny new four-year contract worth $52.5 million with $35 million guaranteed, making him the second-highest paid running back at the time.

Well, the Jets get a big fat “F” for that move. Bell would only play 17 games over the next two seasons and rushed for a measly 863 yards and three touchdowns, causing the Jets to dump him halfway through the deal and forget their losses.

Bell would bounce around on three different NFL teams before finally realizing that his once highly-touted career had been flushed into the sewers. He played his last game for the Buccaneers in 2021, after which he picked up different hobbies, as any player cradling his bruised ego might do.

In total, Bell made roughly $28 million after leaving the Steelers, which is still a good chunk of cash, but it was his reputation that took the biggest hit. He nearly got a ring by hiding on the Chiefs’ 2020 roster, yet other than that fast-tracked claim to fame, his post-Steelers stints were filled with mediocrity and inconsistency.

As of 2023, Bell hasn’t technically retired from the league, though he did mention that he wanted to retire as a Steeler. It’s hardly a surprise that Bell would want to symbolically end his NFL career on the team that drafted him and the one he enjoyed the most success with, but from the Steelers’ perspective? They can still smell the smoke from the burnt bridges and may just shrug their shoulders as if to say: “No thanks, we’re good.”

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