Tim Benz: Steelers won’t — and shouldn’t — rescind Le’Veon Bell’s franchise tag

September 19, 2018
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Steelers offensive guard lead blocks for James Conner against the Titans Saturday Aug. 25, 2018 at Heinz Field.

On Sunday, ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio reminded us the Pittsburgh Steelers still have the option of rescinding the franchise tag for Le’Veon Bell.

Today, I’ll remind you the Penguins have the option of trading Sidney Crosby to Washington for Tom Wilson, and the Pirates have the option of trying to win the Bryce Harper sweepstakes.

Do you think any of those three things will happen?

The only way the Steelers will rescind the tag on Bell is if:

• He has somehow opened himself up to another league suspension.

• He has gotten injured or woefully out of shape this offseason

• He has assured the Steelers he won’t show up for at least the first 10 weeks of the season, before the deadline to pick up an accrued year of free agency.

To that last point, even if the Steelers were to buy that bluff from Bell’s camp, they may hold onto to him anyway so as not to expose him to another AFC rival.

Florio’s rationale is perhaps the Steelers are so impressed by James Conner’s play this preseason, they may now be inclined to pull the tag and let Bell go elsewhere. That would open up $14.55 million for the Steelers to spend on... ....yeah, I can’t think of anyone either. I can’t even think of a group of players the Steelers could acquire between now and Sept. 9 worthy of being paid that kind of money.

Remember, this is a team with a pressing need at linebacker that never seemed to have an interest in Mychal Kendricks, even though he went to Cleveland for an affordable $3.5 million, one-year deal.

A club in “win-now mode” doesn’t dismiss one of the top three running backs in football and turn the keys over to a second-year player who is known as much for injury as he is for production.

PFT has been repeating this refrain about rescinding Bell’s tag in favor of Conner for a year now, dating all the way back to Conner’s preseason home debut a year ago.

Saying Conner could leverage out Bell back then was silly, and it’s silly now.

It’s a great story. We get it. Push out the greedy, petulant diva for the hometown-college kid who battled cancer and won. Headlines aplenty.

I love what we’ve seen from Conner in the preseason, too. Even last year, when he was able and allowed to play, I thought he warranted more than the 32 carries he got. This notion we can now assume he’s a 1-A to Bell’s All-Pro status is comical though.

Also, between Conner’s multiple knee injuries dating to his 2015 season at Pitt, his MCL injury last year, and various nicks and dings he suffered early in his rookie season, Conner has yet to show an ability to stay healthy. Surviving 26 total touches in the preseason this year shouldn’t quell those concerns.

If the Steelers were to rescind the tag on Bell, why would they have waited until now? So that three preseason games against mixed units from other teams could convince them Conner is a suitable replacement for the present? That’s preposterous. All Conner has done is help validate the belief the club had in him when they drafted him in the first place. It was a belief he could be a decent stand-in for Bell, and perhaps a contender to split starting duties in 2019 with a player to be named later.

The goal was never to have Conner seize the starting the job in 2018 to unburden the team from Bell’s cap hit. The goal is to use up 400 more touches for Bell before turning his beaten body out to the free-agent market.

If the Steelers wanted to shed the tag to get a trade done and acquire -- I’ll play along with the internet on this one -- Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald, wouldn’t they have done so by now? Why do that with so little time remaining before the start of the season when you could’ve had the whole camp to get a superstar worked into your system?

The Steelers have been patient enough to allow Conner to grow into the running back they thought he could be when -- according to some -- they reached to draft him: a guy they hoped would backup Bell.

Need evidence? Look at two full offseasons of attempting to work out mega-contracts with Bell even after Conner was added to the team. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin aren’t going to be so reactionary as to release Bell because Conner has shown the slightest glimpse of his potential.

That story should have to wait one more year before it is written.

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