"We know Le'Veon has been a great player for us. We think he can still be a great player from this point forward, and we would love to have him be a Steeler for the rest of his career," Colbert said Thursday, not mincing words in identifying one of the team's biggest offseason agenda items.
The star running back and pass catcher (who was a first-team All-Pro at the flex position, second-team as a back) has said he wants a long-term contract this season, one that will reset the market. This past season, Bell played under a franchise tag that paid him $12.12 million; the highest annual salary for a running back currently is Devonta Freeman's $8.25 million. Bell rejected a deal from the Steelers that would average $12 million a year and pay out $30 million in the first two years, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported last year.
Colbert did not indicate if Bell or his representatives have offered any baselines for their negotiations this spring. Bell has publicly rapped about making $15 million and $17 million, annually, and he joked a few weeks ago about what it would take to sign with the New York Jets: $100 million.
He very famously said -- three days before the Steelers' stunning Divisional Round upset loss to the Jaguars -- that he'd contemplate retirement before he signed another franchise tag. But at the Pro Bowl in late January, he sounded a more buoyant tone, publicly saying that he and the Steelers were closer than they were a year ago.
When asked Thursday if he would describe himself as being optimistic a deal could be done, Colbert said, "I believe I am."
Colbert did say that the negotiations with Bell from a year ago, the ones that dragged out right to the mid-July deadline and then ultimately collapsed, were not necessarily a guidepost to this year. And he suggested that there's only so much weight attached to knowing what Bell's sticking points were a year ago.
"You start over, really," Colbert said. "You know where you were last year. Our situation is different this year. It's not the same playing field for either side. We'll see where it goes."
While teams have a rough gauge on where the salary cap will be, they won't officially know until next month. The Steelers restructured a few veteran player contracts already, to clear more space, but Colbert multiple times talked about that uncertainty still slowing any major moves.
As for the franchise tag, which is expected to be somewhere north of $14 million at the running back position, it's still in play. Twice, Colbert said the tag's use and terms were collectively agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement and that the Steelers "will never discount the use of a tag."
"Everybody knows that's an option," he said. But then he reminded: "Even if do you tag a player, you can still sign him."
The window to tag players is February 20 -- March 6. The Steelers can tag Bell until they work out a longer deal, and Colbert said that despite Bell's recent words, it was heartening a year ago to see Bell's attitude unaffected by the tagging.
"He was great on the field. He was great in the locker room," he said.
Colbert did not discuss the things that may have been viewed to the contrary late in the season. Bell issued an ill-advised tweet referencing two rematches, suggesting he was looking forward to a "round two" with the Patriots (before the Steelers had even played their rematch against the Jaguars), was late to the team's walkthrough prior to that game and late getting to the stadium on game day. Of course, the Steelers rewarded Antonio Brown with the richest contract for a wide receiver weeks after the perennial Pro Bowler posted a Mike Tomlin postgame speech on Facebook Live, and so nothing that happens outside the lines on game days appears to be impacting the team's pocketbook.
"With both sides wanting to get something done, and I believe that is his belief as well as ours, I think that certainly aids your ability to get that done," Colbert said. "Our goal is to be able to sign him to a long-term deal."