Steelers, Le'Veon Bell fail to reach deal by deadline
The Steelers and Le’Veon Bell did not agree to a long-term contract Monday, paving the way for the star running back to skip training camp for a second consecutive year.
The two sides negotiated up until the 4 p.m. deadline. Negotiations cannot resume until after the season when Bell will be an unrestricted free agent. He will turn 27 in the offseason.
“Even though we could not reach a long-term contract agreement with Le’Veon Bell, we are excited he will be with the team in 2018,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement. “We worked very hard to find common ground, but we were unable to accomplish that prior to today’s deadline.”
Throughout the process, Bell had maintained the two sides were closer than in 2016 when he rejected a contract offer at the deadline and played under the franchise-tag tender for the first time. He will earn $14.54 million this season.
“My desire always has been to retire a Steeler,” Bell wrote on his verified Twitter account. “Both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times … to the fans that had hope, I’m sorry we let you down, but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date.”
When Bell joins his teammates this summer – or fall — is anybody’s guess.
Last season, Bell didn’t report to the team until Labor Day – six days before the start of the regular season.
This time, Bell could decide not to sign his franchise-tag tender until deep into the season. The thinking is that Bell could save his body from the wear and tear he received in recent years by missing the start of the season. But that tactic comes with considerable financial risk. For each week Bell would miss, he would forfeit about $855,000 in salary. The Steelers also could withdraw the franchise tender, which would make Bell a free agent at a time when teams have set their budgets for the season.
Between carries and receptions, Bell touched the ball an NFL-high 406 times in 2017. He had 60 more touches than the No. 2 player on the list.
Bell averaged 28 touches per game in 2016, one more than last season when he finished third in the NFL in rushing (1,291 yards) and second in yards from scrimmage (1,946).
Per NFL rules, Bell needs to be on the active roster for only six regular-season games to accrue a full season toward free agency.
In March, during a video chat with fans on his Instagram account, Bell said he would not miss any regular-season games.
“Honestly, no, I’m not going to sit out,” Bell said. “I’m going to be in the facility Week 1. It’s going to be a rerun of last year. I’m not going to (training) camp. I’m not doing nothing else extra, OTAs, none of that.
“I’m going to strictly go to what I have to go to. I want to win every game. I want to have the best statistical career that I possibly can, so I want to play in every game that I can possibly play.”
Using the franchise tag for a third time would provide a salary in excess of $25 million for Bell, making the transition tag a more realistic option. Under the transition tag, Bell would have a fixed $17.45 million salary. In this scenario, however, Bell would be free to sign with any team although the Steelers would have the right to match the contract.
Bell is hoping to reshape the running back market. The second-highest paid running back, in terms of average salary, is the Atlanta Falcons’ Devonta Freeman at $8.25 million. Bell, though, wants to be paid like the top runner and a No. 2 wide receiver because of his pass-catching skills. He has compared himself to Brown, whose contract averages $17 million.
As the Steelers head into training camp, Bell is the only star playmaker that is not signed beyond 2018. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two years left on his deal, and wide receiver Antonio Brown is signed through 2021. In addition, all of the Steelers offensive lineman, except for guard Ramon Foster, have contracts through at least 2019. Such stability is uncommon in the NFL.
According to the NFL players’ association, the Steelers have $5.095 million left in salary cap space. The next order of business will be trying to sign kicker Chris Boswell to a long-term contract. Boswell, who will earn $2.914 million this season, will be an unrestricted free agent in March.
Other starters entering the final year of their contracts are linebacker Vince Williams and tight end Jesse James.
Players report for training camp July 25 at Saint Vincent in Latrobe.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.