Making sense of Le’Veon Bell’s options as deadline to report to Steelers nears

Decision time has arrived in Le’Veon Bell’s holdout. For real this time. The running back who the Steelers franchise tagged in the spring, after he reportedly turned down a contract offer from Pittsburgh in search of a better deal, must report to the team and sign his tender within the next few days if he wants to play this season.

Of course, Bell might not care to play this season at all.

DIAMOND: Worst of Le’Veon Bell’s rude awakenings still to come

The 26-year-old has his mind set on free agency in 2019, where he expects to get the lucrative, long-term contract he desires, and he’s five months away. Even though the Steelers technically control Bell’s short-term fate and could still block his path to the open market, his hitting unrestricted free agency in March is a virtual guarantee.

As Bell’s deadline nears and the saga of his refusal to report to the Steelers this season ends, below are some clarifications regarding why (and if) Bell needs to report, what happens if he does not report and the financial ramifications of his decisions.

When will Le’Veon Bell report to the Steelers?

Bell might report to the Steelers within the next five days. Or … he might not. Despite reports that he would show up during Pittsburgh’s bye a few weeks ago, he did not, setting the stage for decision time.

The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) states that Bell must report to the Steelers and sign his franchise tender by 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, or he can’t play at all this season. Because Bell recently left Miami, where he has been living and training since the offseason, and has been spotted in Pittsburgh, many assume he’s ready to report to the Steelers and sign his tender to play in the last seven games of the season.

MORE: OK, the Le’Veon Bell story just got turned upside-down

But Bell’s camp reportedly is weighing whether to return to the team at all. His ultimate goal is to hit free agency in the offseason as a healthy RB in his prime; a year without football is the best way to preserve that health.

With Bell as the Steelers’ franchise player, though, there has been some unclarity regarding his status for 2019 should he choose not to report this season. That’s addressed below.

What happens if Le’Veon Bell does not report to the Steelers by Nov. 13?

If Bell does not report to the Steelers and sign his franchise tender by 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, he will not be able to play in the NFL this season. That would mean the loss of an accrued season for Bell, who has been franchise tagged two years in a row by the Steelers. But that doesn’t necessarily matter.

Even without an accrued season in 2018, if Bell were to be tagged again by the Steelers in 2019, it would count as his third franchise tag; it would not revert to his second. Per the CBA, Pittsburgh in that case would be required to tender Bell non-exclusively (with first- and third-round comp picks attached) at the average of the top five highest-paid players at the league’s highest-paid position.

The Steelers are not about to tag Bell for a third time and have to pay him top-five quarterback money.

Also per the CBA, if the Steelers do not tag Bell in 2019, he will become an unrestricted free agent.

MORE: Le’Veon Bell only guarantees himself a loss with foolish holdout

How much money has Le’Veon Bell lost?

When the Steelers exit Week 10 without Bell signed, he will have lost $8,555,290 million in guaranteed salary this season. If he does not report by Tuesday’s deadline, that number will jump to $14.544 million, the full amount of the franchise tender he refused to sign.

Bell has lost $855,529 per week by not reporting this season. If he does report to the team before Tuesday’s deadline, the maximum amount he can earn over the rest of the season is $5.9 million.

Will Le’Veon Bell play for the Steelers next season?

No … unless he for some reason sits out another season and plays for a recreational flag football team that happens to be named the Steelers.

Technically Bell could play in Pittsburgh again next season, either via an expensive tag or via a re-signing in free agency. Given the circumstances, neither is likely.

SN contributor Jeff Diamond recently explained how Bell’s holdout has not gone as the RB might have planned. Steelers second-year RB James Conner has been productive in Bell’s absence, and the team is leading its division halfway through the season.

MORE: Steelers are set with James Conner, a legit talent at RB

Further, the messages sent by Bell’s Pittsburgh teammates and coaches suggest they have either already moved on or will have no problem doing so. As Diamond wrote, the damage has been done.

The Steelers probably will let Bell walk in free agency in 2019 and hope he receives a good enough deal elsewhere in order for Pittsburgh to receive a third-round compensatory draft pick.

Why is Le’Veon Bell holding out from the Steelers?

Technically, Bell is not holding out from the Steelers because, well, he’s not currently a Steelers player.

Because Bell has not signed his franchise tender, he is not on the roster or employed by the team in any way. The term holdout is used in principle, not literally.

Bell reportedly was offered a five-year, $70 million deal (with $33 million guaranteed) by the Steelers before the season, but he turned it down. He feels his talents transcend his position, therefore making him more valuable than a typical running back.

Beyond the reported dispute around Bell’s value, the RB evidently wants to remain healthy so that value, whatever it may be, does not decline ahead of his eventual free agency. The less time he spends on the field, the more likely he is to be 100 percent for 2019.

Of course, as Diamond argues, Bell’s refusal to report to the Steelers could raise questions from NFL general managers who might be interested in signing him as a free agent. They could doubt Bell’s commitment and motivation. Many within the Steelers organization already do.

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