5 DE­CI­SIONS ARE NEEDED

Free agency be­gins March 13, so it’s time to think about next sea­son, fu­ture

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - ED BOUCHETTE

Free agency be­gins in the NFL at 4 p.m. March 13. Over the next month, the Steel­ers must make a num­ber of de­ci­sions that could not only im­pact their 2019 sea­son but also cre­ate a new path for them.

Here are five:

• De­cide if it’s worth putting the tran­si­tion tag on Le’Veon Bell or just let him be­come an un­re­stricted free agent.

If the Steel­ers would tag Bell, as the Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Du­lac re­ported they are con­sid­er­ing, it would be purely to try to get some­thing in a trade. That pro­ce­dure would be so con­vo­luted they would be bet­ter off just let­ting him go as a free agent.

The tran­si­tion tag is much dif­fer­ent than the fran­chise tag. Bell would be al­lowed to en­ter­tain of­fers from other NFL teams and if one was to his lik­ing, he could sign their con­tract. The Steel­ers would then have the right to match it or let him go. They would re­ceive no com­pen­sa­tion in re­turn if they let him go, un­like the com­pen­sa­tion pick they would likely get in 2020 if he left as an un­re­stricted free agent.

If they matched an of­fer he signed, he would be theirs for what­ever the con­tract calls for. But they also could trade him, but they would have to do so on the same day they matched the of­fer in or­der to avoid pay­ing the sign­ing bonus that went with the deal he signed with the other team. And they could not trade him to the same team he had signed with.

Why would a team sign him to an of­fer sheet know­ing the Steel­ers wanted to trade him and they could not trade him to them?

Here’s what I would do if I were Bell and his agent and the Steel­ers put the tran­si­tion tag on me. I would go out and find the best of­fer from a team I want to play for, but I wouldn’t sign it. I also wouldn’t sign the tag and tell the Steel­ers I would be will­ing to sit out yet an­other whole sea­son. They would be stuck count­ing the tag — to be de­ter­mined be­tween $9.5 mil­lion and $14.5 mil­lion — on their salary cap.

They likely then would pull the tag and Bell would be free to sign with the team he wanted.

Why would the Steel­ers deal with all those headaches with the prom­ise of noth­ing when they can just be done with Bell and likely get a good com­pen­sa­tion draft pick in 2020 be­cause he signed else­where?

Of course, they also could make him one more mul­ti­year of­fer be­fore he be­comes a free agent, and good luck with that.

• De­cide whether to keep kicker Chris Boswell, tackle Mar­cus Gil­bert and safety Mor­gan Bur­nett.

Boswell is due a $2 mil­lion ros­ter bonus days af­ter March 13. They can re­lease him be­fore that and save that money plus his $1 mil­lion salary and con­duct open com­pe­ti­tions for an­other kicker. They would have to take a cap hit of $4.8 mil­lion on their books (he counts $4.2 mil­lion if he stays), but they would save that $3 mil­lion in cash and he would not count in fu­ture years.

Or, they can just keep him and hope he over­comes the yips that helped pre­vent them from win­ning the AFC North Di­vi­sion in 2018.

Ei­ther is risky. Boswell could re­turn to the form that made him the best kicker in the NFL in 2017, or con­tinue to be as un­re­li­able as he was in 2018.

Gil­bert is due a salary of $1.7 mil­lion in the fi­nal year of his con­tract. That would come right off their cap if they re­lease him. He is a good tackle but not al­ways avail­able be­cause of in­juries and a 2017 PED sus­pen­sion. Also, the Steel­ers have tack­les Matt Feiler and Chuks Oko­rafor back along with Jerald Hawkins com­ing off in­jured re­serve.

Bur­nett is due a salary of $5 mil­lion this year and $4 mil­lion next. They would save $3.6 mil­lion on their cap this year by re­leas­ing him, which is what he re­quested a month ago. Bur­nett, their prime free-agent sign­ing last year, was of­ten in­jured in train­ing camp and early in the sea­son. He started two games and missed five. Rookie Ter­rell Ed­munds sur­passed him at strong safety. He has no ros­ter bonus due, so they could wait un­til af­ter the draft to re­lease him or even in train­ing camp, although they risk pay­ing his salary if he gets hurt.

• Trade An­to­nio Brown, re­lease him be­fore his $2.5 mil­lion ros­ter bonus is due March 17 or do noth­ing and keep him on the ros­ter. There are many un­pre­dictable reper­cus­sions how­ever they choose. If they be­lieve they can get a higher pick in a trade in the draft rather than by the mid­dle of March, they could bet that $2.5 mil­lion on it.

• Of­fer any of their im­pend­ing un­re­stricted free agents con­tracts be­fore they be­come free. Those in­clude Ra­mon Fos­ter, An­thony Chickillo, Eli Rogers and Jesse James among oth­ers. The Steel­ers have passed on of­fer­ing some of their play­ers con­tracts pre­vi­ously be­fore free agency be­gan, let them shop around and re­sign some.

• Of­fer ten­ders to re­stricted free agents B.J. Fin­ney and/ or tight end Xavier Grim­ble. Fin­ney is a valu­able backup guard/cen­ter, the first man in for an in­jury at ei­ther po­si­tion. Plus, Fos­ter will be­come a free agent if not signed be­fore then.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

The Steel­ers and Le’Veon Bell have de­ci­sions on their fu­ture loom­ing.

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