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Steelers, Le'Veon Bell fail to agree on long-term contract before deadline

| Monday, July 17, 2017, 4:12 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
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.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell could wait until just before the start of the regular season to sign his franchise tender.

After sitting out organized team activities and minicamp, Le'Veon Bell can hit the trifecta in nine days.

Will the Pro Bowl running back also skip the start of training camp?

That question became a possibility Monday after Bell and the Steelers couldn't reach agreement on a long-term contract before the 4 p.m. deadline for players receiving the franchise tag designation.

Because NFL rules prohibit any chance of the two sides working out a long-term deal until the end of the regular season, Bell will play 2017 on a one-year, $12.12 million franchise tag. Bell, though, has yet to sign that franchise tender and could wait until the start of the regular season before doing so.

For Bell to report to training camp July 27 at St. Vincent, he almost certainly would sign the tender. Failing to do so would leave Bell unprotected financially in case he incurred a serious injury. And the Steelers could rescind the franchise tag offer as long as it remains unsigned, although that is as likely as a snowstorm interrupting an August practice session.

A more realistic scenario is for Bell to sit out at least a portion of training camp before signing the tender and getting limited preseason work prior to the Sept. 10 opener in Cleveland.

As he did during the weekend, Bell spent Monday in the Miami suburbs working out with his cousin, Jalen. About an hour after the deadline passed, Bell sent out the following video message on his Snapchat account: “It's been a long day. … Gotta get better, apparently.” The latter phrase apparently was a jab at the Steelers for the long-term deal falling through.

Later, Bell posted another video of a workout, with him saying, “I'm out here trying to get better.”

Steelers officials also had little to say other than releasing a statement attributed to general manager Kevin Colbert.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to agree to terms on a long-term contract with Le'Veon Bell prior to today's deadline,” Colbert said. “Le'Veon is scheduled to play this year under the Exclusive Franchise Tag designation. We will resume our efforts to address his contract situation following the 2017 season.” The Steelers applied the exclusive franchise tag to Bell on Feb. 27, keeping him from free agency. The scenario could repeat itself next offseason, but doing so would increase Bell's salary by 20 percent, to about $14.5 million.

Although Bell didn't get the long-term deal he sought, he still will be the NFL's highest-paid running back this season. He will make $4 million more than Buffalo's LeSean McCoy, who is in the third year of a five-year, $40.05 million contract.

Tampa Bay's Doug Martin is the only other NFL running back making an average of $7 million per season.

Bell made $967,000 in base salary in 2016, the final year of his rookie contract.

With Bell's salary for 2017 clarified, the Steelers will shift attention to offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, who hasn't signed his exclusive-rights free agent tender and is a candidate for a long-term deal. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier also could receive contract extensions before the start of the regular season.

Even accounting for Bell's $12.12 million, the Steelers remain $16.175 million under the salary cap, according to NFL players' association figures.

Bell rushed for 1,268 yards and had another 616 yards on 75 receptions in 2016 despite playing only 12 games. He was suspended for the first three games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and he did not suit up for the meaningless regular-season finale.

In the playoffs, Bell set a franchise single-game rushing record with 167 yards against Miami only to top it the following week with 170 yards rushing against Kansas City. But in the AFC championship game at New England, Bell injured his groin early in the game and was limited to six touches for 20 yards. He did not play after early in the second quarter, and the Steelers lost to the Patriots, 36-17, ending a nine-game winning streak.

Bell had surgery to repair the groin injury in the offseason, but in recent weeks posted a video on social media showing off his basketball skills. Whether to guard against injury or as a negotiating ploy, Bell did not participate in any offseason workouts.

Now, it remains to be seen whether he will participate in any preseason workouts, too.

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

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