The Jets appear ready to make a strong bid for running back Le'Veon Bell as soon as the NFL free-agent market opens on March 13.
One problem, though: Bell might not actually be a free agent.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are reportedly considering placing the "transition tag" on the 27-year-old running back, which would certainly complicate the Jets' pursuit of Bell. The Steelers have from now until March 5 to make that decision on a tag that is expected to be about $14.5 million for a one-year deal. And "all indications are (they) still intend to do that," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
If they do use it, though, that doesn't mean he's off the market. In fact, several NFL sources believe the Steelers will tag Bell with the intention of trading him. Obviously it would be easier for the Jets if Bell were an unrestricted free agent and they could simply use some of their projected $95 million in salary cap room to shower him with money. But they'd still have other options to get him.
If Bell gets tagged, here's how that would work:
The Jets could still shower him with money because transition players can still solicit offers. The Steelers would retain the ability to match any offer, but given the fractured relationship between the two sides, that seems highly unlikely. And unlike if Bell were given the "franchise tag", the Steelers wouldn't be due any compensation if they decline to match any offer he receives. So the Jets could make Bell the same offer they would've made to him as an unrestricted free agent, and if they have the best offer and he signs, chances are he'll be a Jet.
There is one catch to that, though: The Steelers could match the offer with the intention of trading him, and then they might not be able to trade him to the Jets. NFL rules prohibit teams from trading a player to the team that submits the offer sheet for at least one year unless the player gives them permission. That would require cooperation between the Steelers and Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari, which again seems unlikely given the bitter feelings on both sides.
Of course, the Steelers - with only a projected $19 million in salary cap space, according to Overthecap.com -- probably can't match any significant offer to Bell anyway. So if they do tag him, their best option might be to trade him before he gets an offer from another team. But he'd need to sign the transition tag first, which again requires some unlikely cooperation from him and his agent.
So basically, Bell and Bakari appear to hold most of the cards, with an ability to determine where Bell goes, either via a trade or an offer sheet. And if it's via a trade, they surely would want Bell to agree to a long-term deal with his new team first, otherwise they wouldn't help make a trade happen. The Steelers' only leverage would seem to be if they are willing to match an offer sheet or carry Bell with his transition tag into next season, which would only continue the distraction that hovered over the Steelers all of last year. That seems unlikely, too.
The bottom line to all this is that the Jets can still land Bell, it just won't be as easy as it would've been if the Steelers do decide to use the transition tag on him. They key question remains: Does Bell want the Jets? SNY has reported he has a preference for the Indianapolis Colts, but there's no indication that the Colts plan to pursue him. The Jets seem positioned to be the highest bidders on Bell in the league.
And even with the complication of the transition tag, if they offer Bell the most money, they'll almost certainly be the team that gets him. That's the Jets hope, whether the tag is used or not.