Big bucks or big regret? Next contract will define Le’Veon Bell’s gamble

After months of speculation, misdirection and confusion, the moment of truth came for Le’Veon Bell. In the end, the running back stood firm.

The long game took priority over the short.

Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline for Bell to report to the Pittsburgh Steelers passed without any deal. By remaining away, the 26-year-old is ineligible to play the remainder of the season. He’ll also officially forfeit the entire $14.54 million that he would have earned had he signed his second consecutive franchise tag.

This never was about a one-year payout for Bell, who through his five previous NFL season has earned a total of $16.04 million. 

Bell sees himself as more than a typical running back, a position usually not as highly prized as a top quarterback, wide receiver, pass rusher or left tackle. That’s why a multi-year deal with an average salary of $14 million (although not 100 percent guaranteed) offered by the Steelers last offseason wasn't enough for him.

But taking the field without long-term financial security was also unappealing. He played two seasons with no salary promised for the following year, enduring the risk of a serious injury that could have damaged his future earning potential. To Bell, that was two seasons too many.

Bell wasn’t going to put himself through the rigors of another 400-plus touch season ahead of free agency. And even though reporting this week would have translated into a significantly lighter load, and a prorated $6 million, Bell still was comfortable deciding to sit out.

Now, he’ll enter the offseason as a free agent, unless the Steelers use the franchise tag a third time (unlikely given the cost is expected to exceed $25 million) or transition tag (possible, because it gives them the right to match any offer he receives).

Ask former and current NFL players, and even agents and contract experts, and many find it hard to understand Bell’s end game. Despite his clear desire to maximize his potential payout for a deal next spring, it's hard to comprehend his decision to forfeit $14.5 million just to keep himself fresh for future seasons.

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