Le'Veon Bell Ineligible to Return in 2018 After Failing to Report to Steelers

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs against the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Le'Veon Bell didn't report to the Pittsburgh Steelers' team facilities by Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert announced.

ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported the news.

As a result, Bell is ineligible to play for the remainder of the 2018 season and will miss out on $14.5 million in wages, per Schefter.

Leading up to the pivotal day, it looked like Bell would opt to miss the rest of the campaign rather than sign his franchise tag tender. Schefter reported Saturday the three-time Pro Bowler was "unlikely" to show up.

Since the Steelers played Thursday night in a 52-21 win over the Carolina Panthers, NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala thought Bell's decision to stay away from the team in the days after that game was telling:

Aditi Kinkhabwala @AKinkhabwala

If Le’Veon Bell truly was going to play this season, made every bit of sense to report yesterday. Either get paid $855,000 for doing nothing, or at least start the clock on the two-week (re: two games) roster exemption w/out pay.

Kinkhabwala shared an anecdote from an exchange about Bell: "An AFC front-office exec texted me this this week: First you pay the guy who throws, then the guy that chases the guy who throws, then the guy who catches the ball thrown best, then the guy who covers the guy catching the ball best, then the guy who blocks for the guy throwing."

The running back declined to sign his one-year, $14.5 million tender in pursuit of an extension that provided long-term financial security.

Some wondered whether Bell would be content to sit out the entire season since he could achieve his aim without stepping on the field.

The Athletic's Mark Kaboly reported Bell would be considered a third-year franchise player in 2019 under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement regardless of whether he signed the Steelers' one-year tender. As a result, his salary would climb to $25 million next year under the franchise tag.

According to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, Bell's tactic hasn't gone unnoticed among some of his peers and their agents:

Mike Garafolo @MikeGarafolo

From @gmfb today, agents with clients facing the franchise tag have taken note of Le’Veon Bell’s recently discovered loophole and plan to at least use the threat of it to their advantage. https://t.co/XBt5WJtL8I

Bell sat out so long that it didn't make sense to return to the Steelers, and the decision seemed even easier based on his franchise tag status for 2019.

Bell probably wouldn't have increased his free-agent value much more over the final seven games of the 2018 regular season; he would've, however, risked seeing his future earnings shrink if he had gotten injured.

Marshawn Lynch didn't look much worse in 2017 after he enjoyed a short-lived retirement in 2016. He ran for 891 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry with the Oakland Raiders.

Lynch isn't a perfect comparison since he was 31 when he suited up for the Raiders, whereas Bell, 26, remains in the prime of his playing career. Still, it's an example of a running back who picked up where he left off after he spent a year out of the league.

Another team can sign Bell with confidence that he's still among the NFL's best backs.

With the passage of Tuesday's deadline, his future almost certainly lies outside Pittsburgh, and the Steelers may be somewhat relieved.

Pittsburgh has seemingly moved on from Bell, as second-year running back James Conner is enjoying a breakout season. Conner has rushed for 771 yards and 10 touchdowns and has caught 39 passes for 387 yards and a touchdown.

In part because of Conner's emergence, the Steelers rank fourth in total offense (419.9 yards per game) and eighth in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders. They may not need Bell to challenge the New England Patriots for AFC supremacy.

Then there was the dynamic of Bell's return to a locker room full of teammates he potentially alienated by staying away. Members of the Steelers offensive line didn't have kind words regarding Bell once his holdout carried into the regular season.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said little about Bell in an interview with ESPN's Dianna Russini, which spoke volumes about the situation:

Dianna Russini @diannaESPN

“We need volunteers— not hostages” Mike Tomlin refreshingly honest on Bell and game ready to beat the Ravens #Steelers https://t.co/zDzFe8nsU5

The Steelers are 6-2-1 and in position to win their third straight AFC North title.

Maybe it would've been as simple as putting Bell in the backfield and making an already good offense even better. But that thinking doesn't take into account Conner's development or trying to defuse any lingering tension from the holdout.

As good as Bell is, the Steelers might be better off without him.