There was something different about the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2018 season — no Le’Veon Bell. The running back stayed away from the team since getting the franchise tag for the second year in a row. His absence included all of the team’s offseason workouts, training camp, the preseason, and then the entire 2018 NFL season. As of Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 4 p.m. ET, Bell made his decision official. He did not report and will not play again until 2019.
When he does take the field next, it will be with a new team. The Steelers had the option to use the franchise tag on Bell again, or the transition tag, but instead they will let him walk in free agency.
With such a long saga, it’s easy to get confused as to what happened. So let’s get you up to speed.
So Le’Veon Bell really skipped an entire season?
He did! Bell had until end of the day on Nov. 13 to show up, or he would not be allowed to play again in 2018, which he did not.
Why didn’t Bell play?
Simple, money. For two years in a row, the Steelers used the franchise tag to retain exclusive rights to the offensive weapon. Although the one-year fully guaranteed deal would have paid him as much as $14.5 million in 2018 (he lost more than $800,000 for every week he was absent), it shorted him the chance to negotiate his worth.
Because he got the tag, Bell’s absence wasn’t a holdout. There was nothing to negotiate. He could have either signed the deal or risked not playing this season.
Instead, Bell’s reasoning for skipping the preseason and then the regular season had more to do with his health. He made it clear that he wants to save some wear and tear on his body before he gets another shot at free agency next spring.
Didn’t Bell and the Steelers negotiate a contract?
They did, but Bell wasn’t happy with the offer and how it was structured.
It sounded like a GREAT offer, $70 million over five years. However, only $10 million was fully guaranteed at signing, which is a common practice for the Steelers. As with most NFL contracts, the devil is in the details. The Steelers could have released him after this season, and he would have earned nothing more on the deal. Or, an injury could have taken millions off the table, so Bell wanted more.
He wanted something more akin to what Todd Gurley got from the Rams. Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million deal with $45 million guaranteed.
So why couldn’t they have just negotiated a new deal?
Because it’s the franchise tag. When a team uses the tag on a player, they have until the middle July of that year to negotiate a long-term deal that replaces the tag.
The Steelers and Bell didn’t get a deal done. The only options available to Bell after that were to sign his one-year franchise tag offer or not sign it and skip part (or all) of the season.
Will the Steelers tag him again in 2019?
Nope. General manager Kevin Colbert said the Steelers won’t give him a third consecutive tag. If they franchise-tagged him again, they’d reportedly have to do it at the quarterback salary number, which means he’d get a one-year, $25 million deal that would be fully guaranteed if he signed it. The team is unwilling to do that.
They could’ve still used the transition tag, but they won’t do that either. That would allow teams to make an offer and give the Steelers the right to match any offer. If another team didn’t make an offer, the transition tag would pay Bell 20 percent more than his previous year salary, which would have been $14.5 million under the franchise tag this year.
So many tags!
What did his teammates think about it?
They actually started out in his corner. But when he told them he’d be back in September and didn’t show, he lost some of their support. Truth be told, it was a very complicated situation between teammates, as retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explained.
Do the Steelers even need him anymore?
Maybe not, though they did miss the playoffs without him.
Still, second-year running back James Conner has filled in nicely in his stead.
Despite missing a few games due to injury, Conner had a great year. He rushed for 973 yards on 215 carries, 12 touchdowns, and a nice 4.5yards per carry. The Steelers also threw Conner the ball 571 times, and he caught 55 of those targets for 497 yards and a touchdown.
Plus, Conner’s rookie contract is very team-friendly.
The Steelers like what they have in Conner and another young running back, Jaylen Samuels.
What’s next for Bell?
Free agency, finally — or at least when the new league year starts on March 13. Go get that bag.