In fact, he still has hope the team will re-sign him to a long-term contract once his franchise tag is up. Bell is staying away from the team to preserve his body, but a source said Bell is expected to report during the Week 7-8 time frame. The Steelers are on a bye in Week 7.
Bell plans to be ready for the Week 8 matchup with the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 28 in Pittsburgh and will decide how much practice time he needs accordingly, a source said.
Bell, who is still sitting out while refusing to sign his franchise tender, said he’s in prime physical condition and could play football “tomorrow” if he needed. He added he’ll be “fully committed” to playing his best for Pittsburgh upon his return.
“It sucks having to sit out football,” Bell said by telephone from South Florida on Monday. “I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs.
“But I’ve gotta take this stand. Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”
Sitting out the entire season was never an option, Bell said. He wants to play for the love of the game and to remind others what he can do, with or without the ball.
“I’ve gotta show people,” he said.
The Steelers are exploring trade options for Bell, though Bell believes he can stay with the team. The Steelers told Bell during franchise-tag negotiations that they would transition-tag him in 2019, which would set the stage for Bell to negotiate with other teams while Pittsburgh holds his rights. The 2019 transition-tag number is expected to be more than $17 million.
Bell’s plan to report later this month would not dissuade the Steelers from making a trade that made sense, league sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The All-Pro, whose 128.9 total yards per game is the highest average over a running back’s first five seasons, said he doesn’t see a “logical team giving up [a high pick and a player] potentially for someone who could play six games with no guarantee of a long-term deal.”
Bell, 26, still wants to retire as a Steeler, despite a hectic past month. He said he believes the team will renegotiate with him, either in the offseason or if it were to rescind the tag, which he doesn’t expect.
“I could be naïve or hopeful, but at the end of the day I feel like that’s what’s going to happen,” Bell said about re-signing with the Steelers. “I don’t think they really want me gone. That could be me being prideful. But I’m still holding out hope.”
The primary reason he’s sitting: Bell’s $70 million offer from Pittsburgh over the summer contained $17 million in guarantees. That wasn’t enough when Todd Gurley and David Johnson received between $31 million and $45 million in guarantees. Bell called the Steelers’ $70 million “Monopoly money.”
Bell knows he’s taken a public-relations hit by deciding to sit out.
“It’s costing me some fans,” Bell said. “A lot of people call me selfish but I’m really not. I’m doing it for guys behind me or guys who don’t understand what’s going on in the business of football. The 22 years I’ve been playing football, I’ve always brought value. I don’t think the Steelers valued me as much.”
The star running back is known for his patience on the field, but a lengthy holdout has created cause to get reacquainted with his skills.
Bell also understands why his teammates were not happy with him. But he hopes they can respect his business and plans to talk with players in the locker room upon his arrival. He believes, over time, he’ll ingratiate himself with the locker room as a hard worker and good teammate. Bell said he never told players or coaches when he would return.
“I’ve got a lot of good relationships with players on the team,” Bell said. “They probably think I backdoored them. But I think they understand the decision. At the end of the day, they said what they said in the media. I’m not really too upset about it. It was a little disappointing, but I understand their side. When I talk to them, I hope they get that side of it.”
Sources told ESPN the Steelers would take the position that Bell’s transition-tag number would be only $11.3 million, which is 120 percent of the salary he’d actually make if he were with the team for 11 weeks as opposed to the full 17.
Bell and his agent could argue they are entitled to more, and appeal it to an arbitrator, but the Steelers would likely take the position that the “2018 salary” wording in the collective bargaining agreement means $9.41 million if he’s on the roster for 11 weeks, as opposed to the full franchise number of $14,544.
Bell weighed all options, including what it would take to offset the $855,000 per week he’s forfeiting during missed games on the tag. But Bell believes the risk of playing a full season was too great, and he was prepared to miss games as soon as the team franchise-tagged him for the second consecutive year in March.
Bell believes the Jets, 49ers, Colts, Browns and Eagles would be among teams interested in his services on the free-agent market. He’d want to go to a team that values his skill set and winning.
“I know the guaranteed money will be there [in March],” Bell said. “If a team wanted to, they could definitely do what they needed to do to make me happy and satisfied.”
Bell said he’s been training vigorously in South Florida.
“With football, you need some practice to get your timing own with Ben [Roethlisberger] and the offensive line,” Bell said. “Right now, I’m as close as close to Year 3. I feel strong, explosive, fast. I think the biggest thing for me now is my mental is a lot stronger. I’m a lot stronger than I was.”
ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Dan Graziano contributed to this report.
BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens are more than just the only perfect team in the red zone this season.
The Ravens are also NFL record-setters when it comes to reaching the end zone inside the 20-yard line. Baltimore became the first team in league history to score touchdowns on its first 12 red zone trips, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Quarterback Joe Flacco said the reason why the Ravens have become automatic in the red zone is because teams can’t predict what they’ll do.
“We’ve had a good mix,” Flacco said. “I think we’ve probably thrown the ball in six times and run the ball in six times. If you can do both of those things, especially when you get down tight inside the 5-yard line … that helps a lot. It takes a lot of pressure off your offense. We’ve got good playmakers, and we put a lot of pressure on the defense with the guys that we have out there.”
It was only a few years ago when the Ravens had been one of the worst teams inside the 20. From 2013 to 2016, Baltimore scored touchdowns 50 percent of the time in the red zone (104-of-208), which ranked No. 30 in the NFL.
The change in the Ravens’ red zone fortune dates back to last season. In the past eight games (including three in 2018), Baltimore has scored 26 touchdowns on 32 red zone trips (81 percent).
“Without short-changing the players in any way, I thought some of the plays have been really brilliant,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve had some play-action plays, where some guys have been wide-open, some easy throws, stuff like that.”
Fitzgerald’s tribute will come before that of former vice president Joe Biden. The Cardinals will play their final preseason game later that night against the visiting Broncos.
McCain had a strong connection to Fitzgerald and the Cardinals. He attended Cardinals games and made an appearance at training camp before the 2017 season. Fitzgerald became friends with the senator, penning a tribute to him last Christmas and visiting him this year.
Rest in peace to an American hero, statesman, servant of the people, and dear friend. Godspeed Senator McCain. My prayers for Cindy and the beautiful McCain family. pic.twitter.com/Tj87Hb8MtY
The Browns have officially moved Gordon to the active list off the non-football injury list, which will allow the 2013 Pro Bowler to participate in walk-throughs beginning Saturday, a move that coincides with what head coach Hue Jackson said in his conference call on Friday.
“Josh Gordon is going to go into the second phase of the process that we have him on. He will definitely be involved in walk-throughs,” Jackson said. “He is definitely getting into the next process for us. He will definitely be involved in the walk-throughs and doing some other things.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement that Gordon has been cleared for all activities, including games.
Gordon had left the team prior to the opening of training camp to get help with his mental health and returned to the team last week but was not able to participate in walk-throughs or practice after being place on the non-football injury list.
Jackson did not have a timetable as to when Gordon would be a full participant in practice or play in a game, but he did say last week that he would like to see Gordon play in the preseason finale against the Detroit Lions, but that the ultimate goal is the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 9.
“If there is a chance against Detroit at the end, it would be great,” Jackson said last week. “If not, my real goal is can we get him up and running by the time that we play Pittsburgh? I think that is really important.”
There is reason to be excited if Gordon can ever regain the form that saw him catch 87 passes for a franchise-record 1,646 yards in 2013, despite missing two games. But being on the field has been the problem throughout Gordon’s career, as he has played in just 10 games for the Browns in the past four seasons combined.
When Gordon gets back on the field, he will team up with Jarvis Landry, whom the Browns acquired this past offseason. Landry, who is coming off a year in which he led the NFL in receptions in 2017 with 112 and has averaged 105 catches per season over the past three years, is looking forward to playing with Gordon.
“I am excited to play with him, excited to work with him, and compete with him,” Landry said last week. “That’s what’s going to help us get to the level we need to be at to win games.”
Information from ESPN’s Ryan Isley was used in this report.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The text message that popped up on Jerick McKinnon‘s phone came from a number he didn’t know. The introduction was fairly formal given the subject matter.
“Hey bro, this is Kyle Juszczyk, fullback for the San Francisco 49ers,” the text began. The duo had never met, but they were well aware of each other, and now Juszczyk was doing some recruiting.
“In free agency, I got ahold of his number and I was letting him know we had some cool things going on over here and I thought he was going to fit in great,” said Juszczyk, who signed with San Francisco in 2017 after three seasons in Baltimore. “I definitely expressed to him like, ‘Dude, if you want your skill set to be used to its full potential, this is where you need to be.’”
Players recruiting one another in free agency is nothing new, but normally those players have at least met.
Before free agency even began, Juszczyk had a strong feeling that Carlos Hyde, the team’s feature back in 2017, would not be returning. Juszczyk took it upon himself to study McKinnon’s game and came to the conclusion that McKinnon would be a great fit for the 49ers and coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Of course, the 49ers weren’t alone in their pursuit of McKinnon — the New York Jets were also in hot pursuit of the former Minnesota Viking — but their belief in McKinnon wasn’t limited to lip service. They backed it up with a whopping four-year, $30 million contract, a $7.5 million annual average value that ranked fourth among all running backs at the time of signing.
McKinnon’s contract raised plenty of eyebrows around the league considering he’d never had more than 159 carries or 570 rushing yards in a season and was coming off a campaign in which he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.
None of that mattered much to the 49ers, who saw in McKinnon a player who could maximize his potential in Shanahan’s offense.
“You have to be a good running back to truly get the effects of being good in the pass game because if you’re only good in the pass game, then they can just treat you as a receiver and it’s different,” Shanahan said. “So it starts with being a running back, and we really like him as a running back. We studied every run he had in Minnesota. I think he fits in the type of runs we do very well. … Then the pass game is the huge bonus.”
When Juszczyk reached out, he struck up an immediate friendship with McKinnon.
And as it turned out, Juszczyk was already on the same page as Shanahan and Niners general manager John Lynch. The 49ers’ brain trust had seen the same qualities as Juszczyk and had identified McKinnon as one of their primary free-agent targets. With Shanahan and Lynch pitching the chance for McKinnon to become a focal point of the offense for the first time after four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and Juszczyk answering all of his questions, McKinnon didn’t take long to warm to the idea of playing for the Niners.
Now, more than two weeks into training camp, McKinnon’s projected role has gained a bit more clarity. In practice, McKinnon has proved a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties in the passing game.
“Jerick is a unique talent,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “He can do things out of the backfield. You can line him up in the slot. He can do so many different things that it’s hard for a defense. What do you put on him? A linebacker, a safety, a corner? It’s a pick your poison type of thing.”
Which is why there’s growing belief that McKinnon’s usage will be similar to what Shanahan did in Atlanta with running back Devonta Freeman. In two seasons with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, Freeman had 160 targets (third most among NFL running backs) to go with 127 receptions (second), while still averaging 1,068 rushing yards per season.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, McKinnon was reunited with Niners running back Matt Breida. The pair played together at Georgia Southern where McKinnon was once an option quarterback operating with Breida as one of his running backs.
For the Niners, it’s not difficult to envision McKinnon playing the role of Freeman to Breida’s Tevin Coleman with Breida handling many of the between-the-tackles duties and McKinnon specializing in pass catching and running outside.
Suffice to say, a running back capable of doing damage in the passing game is a key component of Shanahan’s offense. In 2017, Hyde was targeted 85 times (fifth among running backs), and his 59 receptions tied for sixth. Hyde’s 69.4 percent reception rate ranked just 31st, as he struggled with drops. What’s more, Hyde’s inability to make tacklers miss led to an average of just 5.5 yards per catch after the reception (28th).
Enter McKinnon, with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and the route-running ability to line up just about anywhere Shanahan can dream up. Last season, McKinnon finished with 51 receptions on 68 targets, and his 9.06 yards after catch per reception ranked fourth among all running backs.
That’s not to say McKinnon’s role will be limited to catching passes. He already is a far more natural fit than Hyde as a runner on the outside zone plays that are a staple of Shanahan’s offense. And much of what Shanahan wants to do offensively is based on the idea that he can call anything in his game plan with the same personnel on the field.
The combination of McKinnon and Juszczyk undoubtedly opens up many of those possibilities. To ensure he’s ready for the bigger role he’s always wanted, McKinnon made sure to attend offseason workouts with Garoppolo and to learn the ins and outs of Shanahan’s complex offense.
By his own admission, McKinnon was “really lost” trying to learn the scheme, but he says he’s figuring things out. All that’s left now is for McKinnon to take advantage of the opportunity he’s long coveted and prove that the Niners and Juszczyk’s belief in him were correct.
“A lot of guys, when they get contracts, that’s when they get content,” McKinnon said. “For me, it’s just about staying the same, to continue to work. It being my first year here, just showing my teammates how I work, what I bring to the table, and pushing everyone else around me.”
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Barring an 11th-hour agreement, the New York Jets will conduct their first training camp practice Friday without first-round pick Sam Darnold, one of only two unsigned draft picks in the NFL.
Rookie contract disputes are uncommon because the deals are slotted. In Darnold’s case, his four-year deal will be worth a fully guaranteed $30.2 million, including a $20 million signing bonus, but the two sides are at odds over offset language, sources said.
Darnold’s agent is seeking a contract with no offsets, which would allow him to receive his Jets salary and get paid by another team if the Jets cut him. It’s called “double dipping.” The Jets want an offset because it would provide some financial protection.
The Jets’ case is bolstered by the fact that the quarterback drafted ahead of Darnold (Baker Mayfield) and the first quarterback picked after him (Josh Allen) both have contracts that include offsets. In fact, Allen and Darnold have the same agent, Jimmy Sexton of CAA.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — In at least one way, Brian Gutekunst should have it easy when it comes to his first draft as Green Bay Packers general manager.
It will be his 20th year in the same draft room.
John Dorsey and John Schneider didn’t have that luxury.
Like Gutekunst, Dorsey and Schneider trained in Green Bay under Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf.
Unlike Gutekunst, they had to leave to get their first GM jobs.
That meant a complete overhaul of the draft process with their new teams. For Dorsey, that came with the Chiefs in 2013. For Schneider, it was the Seahawks in 2010.
“Brian is in a unique situation because he’s around guys who know his system,” Dorsey said in a recent interview. “Mine was a little bit different because I had to teach everybody how to implement the system and how we do it. That took a little time and training, Then you have to get everybody on board and the coaches have to learn, the personnel staff has to learn, so you’ve got to be able to teach them as well.”
For two decades, Gutekunst, 44, worked his way up the organizational chart in the Packers’ personnel department. In that time, he worked under Wolf, Mike Sherman (who served as coach and GM) and Ted Thompson. They’re all rooted in the same scouting system that Wolf put in place in 1992. Every scout on Gutekunst’s staff worked under one or more of the Packers’ previous GMs.
“They’ve had their system in place,” Schneider said in a recent interview. “They can all speak the same language. They’re not adapting to anything. They’ve been doing it the same way there since Ron was there.
“It was different because we were just coming here. It’s different for those guys; they’ve all been together, they’ve all been working together, it’s just somebody different who’s making the final call. I was feeling out people that I hadn’t worked with in a while or I hadn’t worked with, period. I didn’t know the head coach.”
Gutekunst also has something else going for him that neither Dorsey nor Schneider had for their first drafts: His predecessor will be in the draft room. Thompson was retained as a senior adviser to football operations.
“Ted’s been here for the entire process and been part of all our meetings,” Gutekunst said this week in his pre-draft news conference. “He’ll be in the room on draft day, at our table. I’ve used him for a lot of scenarios, situational things like, ‘Hey, when this happened …’ or ‘Have you been in this situation?’ Obviously he’s one of the best talent evaluators that have ever done this and he’s been very much a part of what we’re doing.”
Listen, balance, decide
As a scout, Gutekunst was one of the voices in the room.
Now, he’s the voice.
But it may be more important for him to listen.
“It’s your call, therefore what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to listen a lot more,” Dorsey said. “I always use the phrase, ‘God created two ears and one mouth for a reason.’ You listen, and that’s what you have to do. And you have to make the decision for what’s best for the long-term future of the organization because you’re going to get pushed and pulled in so many different directions. But at the end of the day you have to follow your intuitive and instinctive feel. You have to.”
Still, the draft room is a mix of democracy and dictatorship. Scouts and assistant coaches alike are asked to offer their opinions. But in the end, it’s one person’s call.
“All of a sudden, it’s just not your opinion — at the end of the day it is — but you’re balancing all these other people’s opinions, trying to gain a consensus before you just sit by yourself and decide how and where you’re going to acquire players not just purely based on grades,” Schneider said. “That’s what he’s going to have to balance. He’s just been getting comfortable with the guys on his staff and then figuring them out and going through the process and then bringing the coaches in and then having the open-mindedness and the patience to work through that instead of just saying, ‘No, this is the way it is.’”
Part of that is knowing who to listen to in the draft room.
“Evaluate the evaluators and know who [to listen to],” Dorsey said.
‘Keep your head clear’
It would appear Gutekunst already has a handle on the dynamic that a general manager must have with his scouts and coaches during the draft process.
That came from both his 20 years of experience and his ability to rely on the advice from the likes of Dorsey, Schneider, Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and others who have worked in Green Bay during that time.
“I think at some point I’ve talked to all of them about that particular thing, and I’ve talked to Ted a lot about that over the last few weeks here,” Gutekunst said. “I think it’s all sound advice. One of the things that’s kind of a common theme is keep your head clear. There’s a lot of voices in the room and do what you think is best for the Green Bay Packers. That’s been kind of the common theme.”
“Doing this for 20 years, realizing how important it is to focus on the task at hand, kind of block those things out,” Gutekunst added. “You listen to everything but at the end of the day, it’s my job to do what’s best for the Green Bay Packers, regardless of anybody’s feelings or their opinions.”
On the clock
This first pick — or the first draft — won’t necessarily define Gutekunst, but his experience in that process could help shape his future.
“It was either Trent Williams or Russell, and we were hoping for Russell,” Schneider said. “But after that our next guy was Earl, and then we were just blessed that guy was still around because Philly traded right ahead of us, and we were ready to move back, so we had a trade back to move back, I think with Tennessee, and Philly made a trade right ahead of us and they took Brandon Graham, and then we took Earl.”
Dorsey’s first pick was the first overall pick — a position he’s in again as the Browns’ new GM. Like the Browns now, the Chiefs needed a franchise quarterback, but Dorsey decided that unlike this year’s class, that quarterback group that group did not have one.
“It sucked; there were no quarterbacks,” he said. “So what we had to do is we made that plan early on. Once we identified there were no quarterbacks, I got Alex Smith in a trade. I gave up those two [second-round picks]. To me, that was nothing.”
With the quarterback in the fold, Dorsey picked tackle Eric Fisher at No. 1. Fisher played right tackle as a rookie then moved to left tackle and has started 74 of 80 games for the Chiefs but has never made a Pro Bowl.
“That was easy — to me he was the most gifted of all the tackles,” Dorsey said. “Some would say Lane Johnson, I still say Fischer is a left tackle.”
Dorsey also got Travis Kelce (third round) in that first draft.
“I knew I was taking him,” Dorsey said. “The tight end coach was trying to kill him. I’m like, ‘No this guy is too talented.’ This is the way the NFL is going with these types of tight ends.”
In the end, a general manager is a scout at heart, which is something Dorsey said he always keeps in mind.
“The scouting, to me, is the easy part,” Dorsey said. “It’s the day-to-day administrative stuff that you have to do that you’ve got to get used to [as a GM]. Your door is open and people start coming in at 6:30 in the morning and it doesn’t stop until like 8 o’clock at night. So that’s what you’ve got to get used to.”
The reasons for not signing him are clear — money and injuries. Despite turning 26 in May, Mathieu has battled through two significant knee injuries and a shoulder issue. The Steelers sit at $6.512 million in cap space as of Thursday, the third-lowest clip in the league, so meeting Mathieu’s demands would be a challenge. Mathieu is used to making $10 million per year, which should be his market. The Steelers barely have enough cushion to sign a rookie class.
But since signing a former Pro Bowl defensive back fresh off a release worked out well last summer with Joe Haden, maybe the Steelers employ a similar strategy. Haden carries a $11.916 million cap number and the Steelers don’t seem to care much because he’s their best player in the secondary. Haden is one of five Steelers with a cap hit of more than $10 million, which has them in cost-cutting mode this time of year, but no move is impossible. The Steelers did just make $26 million of space disappear with four contract restructures since February.
Point is, if the Steelers really wanted to make a run at a wrecking-ball safety in free agency, they can make it happen. They passed on the top inside linebackers at $5-9 million per year, but only the elite linebackers can swiftly cover the pass as well as the run, which is crucial in today’s NFL. Mathieu can do both.
The Steelers rarely move in free agency, which is often a sign of a stable roster. There are enough good safeties in the first three rounds of the draft. Pittsburgh had a chance at Eric Weddle two years ago and opted for a rookie in stead.
But getting his skill set for a team firmly entrenched in a championship window has to be at least mildly tempting.
Need and fit mateh up, even if the money does not.