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Deadline looming for new deal with Steelers' Le'Veon Bell

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, July 16, 2017, 9:03 p.m.
Steelers running back LeVeon Bell returns to practice Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back LeVeon Bell returns to practice Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Since the Steelers placed the franchise tag on Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell in late February, the two sides have had almost five months to replace it with a long-term contract.

Like most negotiations, this one is headed to the final hours.

The Steelers and Bell face a 4 p.m. deadline Monday to agree to a long-term deal. If a deal isn't struck by then, Bell must play the season on the one-year, $12.12 million franchise tender and can't sign a long-term contract until after the season.

The only caveat is if the Steelers rescind the franchise tender since Bell has yet to sign it. In that unlikeliest of scenarios, Bell immediately would hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.

Bell is one of three NFL players facing the 4 p.m. deadline. Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson are the others.

Bell's situation is complicated given that, in the current pass-happy NFL climate where quarterbacks and wide receivers get rewarded financially, running backs are among the lowest-paid players, and Bell's $12.12 million tender is $4 million more than the next highest-paid running back is making.

Buffalo's LeSean McCoy, the former Pitt star, is averaging $8 million while in the third year of a five-year, $40.05 million contract. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin is the only other running back with a contract averaging more than $7 million.

If Bell plays this season on his one-year tender, the Steelers could use the franchise tag again next offseason, although the cost would rise to $14.5 million. Which is why Bell's representatives are likely seeking $26.5 million in guaranteed money — his franchise amount over the next two years — under terms of a long-term contract.

That would be a significant investment for a player who has been suspended by the NFL twice for violating the league's substance abuse policy and hasn't finished the past three seasons healthy. Bell had offseason surgery on his groin.

Bell, however, became the fastest player in NFL history to reach 3,000 rushing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in his career, doing it in 38 games. He also led the NFL by averaging 157 yards from scrimmage last season, and he set franchise postseason rushing records in playoff wins over Miami (167 yards) and Kansas City (170). That will help bolster Bell's case for reshaping the running back market.

Bell did not participate in organized team activities or minicamp, which disappointed some of his teammates. Training camp begins July 27 at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

No matter what transpires Monday, one thing is for certain: Bell will get a significant pay increase from his rookie contract.

In 2016, the final year of that deal, he had a $967,000 base salary and $1.13 million salary cap hit, according to overthecap.com .

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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