Here's why Le'Veon Bell's holdout could have a lasting impact on the NFL

·NFL columnist

Add another loser to the holdout saga between Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time, it’s the NFL at large – which has had a little-known contract loophole exposed in this whole mess.

In the latest twist in the ongoing impasse between Bell and the Steelers, it has become apparent the all-powerful NFL franchise tag has a weak spot — albeit one that can be exposed only if a player is willing to risk a massive amount of money to take advantage of it.

As it turns out, Bell is now positioned to be that player. And his standoff with the Steelers is close to illustrating exactly how that loophole could be used by players in the future.

Why teams loathe three straight franchise tags

In a nutshell: The collective-bargaining agreement allows consecutive franchise tags to be accrued by a player even if that player sits out an entire season. That means NFL players slapped with a second straight franchise tag (as Bell was in 2018) could refuse to report and the tag would still count.

Why is that significant? Because the salary formula in the CBA makes franchise tags wildly expensive when they are applied to a player three straight seasons. So even if Bell doesn’t show up to play in 2018, his next franchise tag by the Steelers will still be considered his third straight and be subject to an almost impossible salary hike of at least $25 million for the 2019 season.

To understand why this can be a leverage point for players and agents – and bad for NFL teams – you have to know the basics of the franchise tag. Which are:

• A player’s first franchise tag is a one-year deal that is the higher of two numbers: either 120 percent of their previous salary; or the average of the top five salaries at their position.

• A player’s second straight franchise tag is the same: 120 percent of the previous year’s salary; or the top five salaries at their position.

• A player’s third straight tag is significantly more expensive. It’s the higher of two numbers: 144 percent of the previous year’s salary; or the average of the league’s top-five highest quarterback salaries.

Le’Veon Bell hasn’t played since the Steelers’ loss to the Jaguars in the AFC playoffs last season. (Icon Sportswire)
Le’Veon Bell hasn’t played since the Steelers’ loss to the Jaguars in the AFC playoffs last season. (Icon Sportswire)

Teams do not want to ever get into a position where they have to consider paying a third straight franchise tag. The Washington Redskins were in that spot with quarterback Kirk Cousins and let him leave in free agency because the third consecutive tag was $34.5 million for one season.

The Steelers don’t want to be in that spot with Bell, since his salary would be the average of the NFL’s top five quarterback salaries: at least $25 million in 2019 (and likely more expensive than that).

Could more NFL stars take advantage of loophole?

This is why Bell has exposed something here with his holdout. It wasn’t widely known a player could skip a franchise-tagged season and still have it count toward that graduating pay scale. That could be a valuable reality for players in the future, while also giving NFL teams plenty to think about.

What it means is this: If an NFL player has already been tagged once and fears injury in a second straight tagged season (or simply thinks the tag isn’t rich enough), he could threaten to do precisely what Bell may do this week – skip the second tagged season entirely.

In theory, that could create a leverage point for agents at the negotiating table. One in which they say to an NFL team, “We want to do a contract extension. The player doesn’t want to play under another tag. If you tag him, he won’t show up this year and then you’ll still have to pay him the extremely expensive third tag one year from now.”

That threat of sitting out a second tagged season could motivate some teams to either do a contract extension after one tag or trade the player, rather than face the possibility he’ll do something like Bell is threatening. In reality, no team is going to want to pay for a third straight franchise tag. And if the player is willing to sit out a year to get to that tag, it puts all the leverage in the favor of that player.

‘What player is willing to do that?’

For the strategy to work, a player has to be willing to give up one year of a franchise tag salary. That’s a steep price.

Bell appears to be on the verge of that, turning down this season’s $14.5 million and putting the Steelers in a position where they’ll have to consider the cost of tagging him again in 2019 and paying him more than $25 million next year. As it stands now, Pittsburgh does not appear inclined to do that, so Bell will likely hit free agency in 2019, just as he desired.

But again, it’s the act of Bell going through with this that is significant for agents and players. Prior to Bell, it was unthinkable a player would actually forgo an entire year of a franchise-tagged salary just to get to the point that a team had to let them go. Now? Bell is on the verge of doing just that. This makes it a little more real when an agent looks at a team and says “My player refuses to report for a second straight franchise-tag season. Either give him an extension now … or trade him … or prepare to go without him and then have to release him in a year because you don’t want to pay him the huge money for the third straight tag.”

In theory, it’s a powerful tool for agents and players to force the hand of an NFL team. In reality? Well, it takes a lot of guts and willingness to gamble away an entire season to pull it off.

As one agent said Sunday night, “For this to matter, a player has to be willing to sit out an entire year and give up all that money. What player is willing to do that?”

Le’Veon Bell appears willing. And from this point forward, other players who are just as frustrated could consider it, too.

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