The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2018 season began without Le’Veon Bell. It may end that way, too.
Despite reports that Bell planned to rejoin the Steelers during the team’s Week 7 bye, that did not happen. Then he didn’t return before the trade deadline. And now, according to reports, it looks like he won’t return at all this fall.
Steelers’ running back Le'Veon Bell is unlikely to report to the team by Tuesday's deadline, which would make him ineligible to play the rest of this season, multiple league sources tell ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 11, 2018
Bell’s prolonged absence is due to a contract dispute with the Steelers that began well over a year ago, but has reached a boiling point and will almost definitely end with the running back on a different roster in 2019.
The battle between the Steelers and Bell has even threatened to split the locker room with some players on the team calling out his “tiresome antics” and calling his holdout “stupid” and selfish. It caused other players on the team, like star receiver Antonio Brown, to jump to Bell’s defense.
After Bell missed the first two weeks of the regular season, the Steelers even stripped his name from the roster and depth chart.
What does Le’Veon Bell want?
The 26-year-old running back has been one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL since he entered the league in 2013, but still hasn’t had the opportunity to negotiate his worth on the open market. In each of the last two offseasons, the Steelers have used the franchise tag to keep Bell from having a chance to hunt for big money.
Bell isn’t hurting for money with a one-year, $14.5 million franchise tender from the Steelers, but the team’s last chance offer in the summer for a long-term deal with the running back included just $10 million guaranteed.
Now he has no choice but to show up on the one-year, $14.5 million deal or forfeit his game checks. He’s losing more than $850,000 each game he stays home.
Why won’t he show up?
With Bell almost guaranteed to leave in free agency, the Steelers have no reason not to squeeze every drop of value out of the star. He led the league in touches in 2017, and Pittsburgh can now crank that total up even further.
If Bell hopes to be as valuable as possible in March, it makes sense for the running back to worry about his snap count and leave as much tread as possible for teams to invest in.
So there’s logic behind Bell sitting out some games in 2018 to better set himself up in 2019.
How long will he sit out?
If reports are true, Bell’s 2018 is over before it even began.
By not signing his franchise tender by Week 1, he forfeited $855,000 and he’ll continue to cut into that total the longer he sits. The longest he could do is sit out until Week 11, because if he waits any longer the 2018 season wouldn’t count and he’d be stuck under contract with the Steelers in 2019 too.
Either way, the Steelers didn’t expect him back any time soon from the start:
“Talking to Steelers officials last night, they’re basically viewing this now as an extended absence.”@JasonLaCanfora has news on Le’Veon Bell’s situation in Pittsburgh, and it doesn’t sound promising. #TOPS pic.twitter.com/OGw1tBxsPf— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) September 9, 2018
When his agent suggested that his holdout could be lengthy, he also said that Bell intends for 2018 to be the best statistical season of his career. That seems unlikely now.
Until he shows up the Steelers are relying on 2017 third-round pick James Conner to handle the load. And in Week 1, Conner looked up to the task. While Pittsburgh opened the season with a 21-21 tie against the Browns, Conner had 36 touches for 192 all-purpose yards with two touchdowns. In subsequent games, he struggled some, but has since rebounded with four straight 100-yard games. He’s currently the league’s No. 2 rusher in terms of total yardage.
Could he be traded?
Nope. Any chance of that ended at the trade deadline back on October 30.
Trade rumors had gone back and forth about Bell since the start of the season. On the day of the team’s regular season opener, Schefter said the Steelers had “no interest in dealing” Bell:
To anyone suggesting the Steelers trade RB Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh is not even considering that option at this time, per source. No interest in dealing him. Steelers will wait for him, and some around the league believe Bell will be back before end of month.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 9, 2018
But after an 0-1-1 start to the year with plenty of drama that was exacerbated by Bell’s absence, that tune changed:
Steelers now listening to trade offers for RB Le’Veon Bell, league sources tell ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 23, 2018
Now, we’re back to the “it’s probably not happening” category.
It was going to be difficult, anyway, because the Steelers weren’t getting any value for Bell that tops the eventual compensatory pick they’d get if the running back leaves in free agency.