5 DECISIONS ARE NEEDED
Free agency begins March 13, so it’s time to think about next season, future
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.
The Steelers and Le’Veon Bell have decisions on their future looming.