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PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell says he and the Pittsburgh Steelers are closer in negotiations than they were a year ago. It’s time to find out just how close.

The franchise tag window is here, and if the Steelers use the tag as expected, Bell and the team have the next five months to work out a contract.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s next:

Where things stand: Both sides have expressed optimism over a long-term deal. Negotiations still are in the early stages, but they could take flight at the NFL combine next week.

Why the Steelers likely will tag Bell: Because they are prepared to use it. They’ve budgeted for it. And because they’d be crazy to let one of their most productive players hit free agency during a crucial Super Bowl window. If no deal is reached by early March, the Steelers can apply the tag to give themselves more options — they can keep Bell as another one-year rental or continue to negotiate. The $14.5 million tag gives Bell leverage, but the Steelers can use it as a way to test Bell’s retirement claims.

Why the Steelers might try to avoid the tag altogether: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the team would prefer a long-term deal above all else. Basically, they’d rather avoid a repeat of last year, when Bell missed training camp as a result of the failure to reach an extension by the mid-July deadline. It’s cleaner this way. They have an idea of what Bell wants. If they can meet halfway, perhaps they find a sweet spot this month.

Why the Steelers appear all-in on Bell: The game’s most versatile back averages 129 yards from scrimmage per game, the highest clip over a player’s first five seasons since the NFL merger in 1970. He’s a unicorn back. He does things that you can’t duplicate in the draft. He’s an elite receiver for his position (or any position), he’s an excellent pass-blocker, he can control the pace of the game with his runs and Ben Roethlisberger is at his best when Bell is heavily involved in the game plan. And he just turned 26. The body should have at least a few good years left.

What could hold up a deal: Standard guarantees. This will be crucial to Bell, who knows the per-year payouts to big contracts only tell part of the story. For example, if a team signs a player to a five-year, $50 million deal, the guaranteed money usually dries up by year two, leaving years 3-5 as option, pay-as-you-perform propositions. The Steelers typically guarantee only the signing bonus, then it’s up to the player to keep performing. That said, they sign players with the intention of seeing them through the contract, which isn’t the standard for all teams.

Why the Steelers might be concerned: Bell’s longest run last season was 27 yards. Even Bell lamented frequent no-gain runs around the midseason point. Is his 4.0 yards per carry a byproduct of 1,541 career touches? It’s worth noting that Bell missing camp clearly affected him the first three weeks of the season, and the Steelers’ offensive line, though good, wasn’t as dominant as the previous year.

Why Bell won’t blink: Bell has made clear multiple times he considers himself a standard-bearer for a sagging running back market. He considers getting top dollar for his position his personal mission. He’s never had major money in his life until now, he says, so he plans to do this right and capitalize on his position of power. Plus, he knows what the Steelers know — they can get out of just about any deal after two years with minimal cap impact. That might involve absorbing some dead money, but shedding a large cap number would offset that problem.

Why the Steelers won’t blink: Teams usually win standoffs with running backs, and the Steelers are among the hardest bargainers. The team can offer the tag or their final long-term proposal and if Bell doesn’t take it, they throw the ball 50 times a game and toss James Conner out there. That’s not ideal, but it’s an option if they feel Bell’s price won’t fall to them.

How the Steelers can pull this off: Make what seems like a megadeal — say, $68 million over five years — manageable. Go big on the signing bonus, which prorates over the course of the deal, and bloat the fourth and fifth years as escape clauses.

A quote to remember: “The least amount of change, the better. That goes for players, coaches and everything; we don’t want big changes. We’re right there. We’re on the cusp [of a championship].” — Ben Roethlisberger to 93.7 the Fan on Jan. 16.

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NFL’s minority hiring rate for open jobs nearly doubled

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The number of minority hires for open positions in the NFL nearly doubled to 34.6% in 2021.

According to the league’s demographics study obtained Friday by The Associated Press, the minority hirings included: three general managers, two head coaches, three offensive coordinators, six defensive coordinators, four special teams coordinators, three quarterbacks coaches.

The minority hiring rate was 18.8% in 2020. Interview requests for minority candidates increased to 47% from 22% in 2020.

Twelve of the 28 candidates interviewed for head coaching positions were minorities. David Culley (Texans) and Robert Saleh (Jets) were hired. Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was passed over despite receiving an interview request from each of the seven teams looking for a new head coach.

The data shows minority head coaches have been given second opportunities at a higher rate than white coaches. From 2000 to present, eight of 21 fired minority coaches (38.1%) got another head coaching job. Of the 115 fired white coaches, 22 (19.1%) got a second chance.

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New York Giants’ Nate Solder intends to play in 2021 after opting out last season

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants offensive tackle Nate Solder intends to play in 2021 as long as the situation is right, he told ESPN in a phone conversation this week.

Solder, who opted out this past season because of concerns for his family with COVID-19, has yet to have that conversation with the team about his future. He was considered a high-risk opt-out and his contract tolled.

He is scheduled to make $10 million in 2021 while costing $16.5 million against the salary cap this upcoming season.

The Giants haven’t been in a rush to make any moves with the new league year still almost three weeks away. Like everybody else, they’re waiting to see the official salary cap number for the 2021 season. Then they’re expected to meet with the veteran tackle.

Solder, 32, was the Giants’ starting left tackle in 2018 and ’19 after signing a lucrative free-agent contract. He had spent the previous seven years of his career with the New England Patriots, where he won a pair of Super Bowls.

The decision to opt out last season centered around Solder’s family. His oldest son Hudson has battled cancer. So has Nate. Solder and his wife Lexi also had a newborn.

Solder had said late last year on the Sports Spectrum podcast with former NFL quarterback Brock Huard that if he had another opportunity to play, he would probably take it. He also noted that he was still working out, but hadn’t prioritized his conditioning and weight lifting like he would during a normal football season.

The Giants now have a decision to make if they are going to move forward with Solder. They would save $6 million this season against the salary cap if he’s released, and $10 million if they made it a post-June 1 cut.

New York drafted a pair of tackles in last year’s draft, including Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 overall pick out of Georgia. Thomas started at left tackle and, despite early struggles, got better as the season progressed.

Third-round pick Matt Peart is expected to compete for the starting right tackle spot this year. Cameron Fleming, who started last season, is a free agent.

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From Curtis Samuel to draft, Washington has options to add speed at WR – Washington Blog

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ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington Football Team needs to settle who will throw the ball for it this season. However, while quarterback remains the hottest topic, the group he will throw to is a big priority. To help any quarterback, Washington must improve at wide receiver.

And there’s one quality the team wants most: Speed.

They have Terry McLaurin, who has caught 145 passes for for 2,037 yards in his first two seasons without any consistency at quarterback or from other wide receivers. He has been targeted 223 times, and over the past two seasons no other Washington wide receiver has more than 95 targets or 61 catches. No other player has more than 111 targets.

Washington finished 24th in the NFL with 31 plays of 20 yards or more by wideouts, and McLaurin had 17 of them. In other words, they will add more talent around him.

Who are the best free-agent solutions?

Washington pursued the Dallas CowboysAmari Cooper heavily last offseason, but he was also the only blue chip wide receiver available. Also, knowing they would select Chase Young as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 draft and without a second-round pick, free agency was the best way to land a premium pass-catching talent.

More options exist this offseason. Signing one would allow them to target an offensive tackle in the first round with the No. 19 pick of the 2021 NFL draft.

Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson II would be considered the best available and would help any quarterback look better. That’s what he did for Blake Bortles in Jacksonville and Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago. He also had 22 gains of 20 yards or more, one behind the league lead.

However, if Washington wants pure speed, there is Curtis Samuel, whom the Carolina Panthers drafted when Ron Rivera was their coach and Marty Hurney the general manager. Both are now in Washington along with offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who was in Carolina as well. Samuel’s speed makes him dangerous. Against Washington this season, for example, he caught a 45-yard pass where a head fake didn’t fool the safety, but his speed made the play work. He creates well after the catch, too, and can help in the backfield.

Nelson Agholor averaged 18.67 yards per catch for the Las Vegas Raiders last season, second in the NFL. His average air yards per target ranked third at 11.1 yards. In other words: He’s a downfield threat. In Philadelphia, he was used mostly in the slot. From 2017 to 2019 with the Eagles, Agholor caught a combined 117 passes from the slot and 37 outside. With the Raiders, he caught 12 passes in the slot and 35 outside. One NFC scout called him explosive with big-play ability, but he has inconsistent hands. His flexibility would pair well with the equally versatile McLaurin.

Will Fuller (Houston Texans) is another fast (and probably expensive) free agent: He averaged an NFL-best 11.4 air yards per target and was fifth at 16.58 yards per catch.

Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (Pittsburgh Steelers) are other prominent free agents; both are considered playmakers, though Schuster is not considered a burner.

How much does the QB situation impact free agency?

A lot. Not at all. Or, OK, maybe a little. It depends which agent you ask. As it searches for an upgrade, Washington, for now, has quarterbacks Alex Smith, Taylor Heinicke and Steven Montez under contract with Kyle Allen an exclusive rights free agent.

One agent was adamant he wouldn’t send his clients into a situation like Washington’s, feeling it could prevent them from building up statistics and earning another deal. That would especially be true if the player was coming on a one-year, prove-it deal where numbers equal more money the following year.

However, another agent, who also represents some wide receivers, said the quarterback situation wouldn’t matter.

“For any player in free agency, money is always the No. 1 thing,” the agent said. “If it’s equal in pay, you go to your next criteria. For your last deal you might say I’ll play with the best quarterback, but those guys have gotten their money already.”

Another agent said if a guy hasn’t played with a good quarterback, it might fuel his desire to get with one. But it was clear some quarterbacks would be undesirable.

“I don’t think there’s ever a cookie-cutter method,” he said. “It depends on the player and his priorities.”

Could the draft provide help?

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Washington’s situation: “Wide receiver is the deepest position in the draft. … They’ve got to find someone.”

Kiper said as many as 40 wide receivers could receive draftable grades. Because of the unusual season, and lack of great scouting opportunities, teams will disagree on which 40 warrant those grades. A wide receiver a team likes in the fourth round could fall to the sixth or seventh.

That draft depth also could prompt Washington to spend elsewhere in free agency, or it could allow the team to trade back from the No. 19 pick and still get a player who can help. Florida’s Kadarius Toney likely will be available when Washington selects in the first round. He is not considered a deep burner, but he does have good speed and makes defenders miss because of elite quickness.

“He’s a playmaker,” Kiper said.

Kiper listed others in the top two rounds who could make an impact, including Elijah Moore (Ole Miss) and TuTu Atwell (Louisville). They are smaller but with excellent speed, particularly Atwell. There’s also Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge. He’s another small-but-fast target who can align in the slot, but also move outside.

“He’s super explosive,” said Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl director as well as an ESPN college draft analyst. “He was playing at a whole different speed than everyone else, but was that just the [Mid-American Conference]? … But the speed was real.”

Nagy also pointed out UCLA’s Demetric Felton, a running back in college who stood out in the slot at the Senior Bowl. His versatility is attractive and he could be a younger version of Samuel.

It’s too early to know who will be available for Washington, but there will be options if it doesn’t land someone in free agency.

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