Le’Veon Bell, Steelers still not communicating, team believes he may sit out season

The Steelers head into Week 11 still unsure of whether or not former Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bill will play for them this season, sources said, with the Tuesday deadline looming. There has been no communication between the sides this weekend to this point, I’m told, as the team waits to see if Bell signs his contract by the 4 p.m. ET deadline on Tuesday.

Some in the organization believe the star will now sit out the entire season at this point to avoid any injury risk and to potentially protect himself for a looming arbitration battle between the NFL and NFLPA over Bell’s status in 2019. Sources said the Steelers are focused on the use of a transition tag on Bell next season, and NFL sources indicated the league believes it has a very strong case for having Bell’s 2019 transition tag as low as $9.5M and no higher than $14.5M (which is the amount he would have made in 2018 had he played out his franchise tag).

While much reporting and speculation has focused on the potential for a 2019 franchise tag for Bell, what the cost of that would be, and whether or not he would have to tagged at the quarterback figure, the league has been doing more work in preparation of how the transition tag would unfold. The transition tag has always been the more likely of the two tags to be utilized in this case, and team and league sources would be very surprised if the Steelers do not apply it in 2019 whether Bell plays or not. Once the Steelers apply any tag, a hearing would be scheduled for an arbitrator to decide on precisely what the amount of the tag should be.

If Bell does return, however, the Steelers could make the case that the value of his 2019 transition tag should be 120 percent of whatever his actual take-home pay was in 2018 (at this point, the maximum Bell could take home would be around $6M, meaning a 20 percent raise would take him to $7.2M). However, the CBA stipulates the tag figure must be the higher of that 120 percent raise figure, or what the actual 2019 transition tag for running backs would be, and that figure projects to be about $9.5M.

The Steelers would have a right to match any offer sheet on that tag, but would receive no draft-pick compensation in that instance.

If Bell sits out the entire season, sources said the NFL would argue that he must be transitioned at 120 percent of his last NFL salary, which in this case would go back to the 2017 season that he played out on the franchise tag, worth $12.12M. A 20 percent raise on that would bring Bell back to the $14.5M figure he was set to make in 2018 on a second franchise tag. The 2019 franchise tag conjecture is largely much ado about nothing, as the far likelier contractual battle in 2019 is around the transition tag.

Given how much time Bell has missed, and with the risk of injury, many in NFLPA circles believe his smartest option at this point is to forgo any remaining 2018 salary and then see what kind of offers a healthy and rested Bell could land while on the transition tag, whether it would be around $9M or at $14.5M. That is something Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari, have been seriously mulling for quite some time, I’m told.

A team that heavily front-loaded a contract, or guaranteed money beyond the first two years of a contract, stands to have a good shot of landing the running back, although the lack of interest in Bell at the trading deadline and how his actions are being perceived by many in NFL management positions could portend a far more tepid market for him than most would have expected had he, for instance, been on the transition tag heading into the 2018 season, when a feeding-frenzy may have emerged.

Bell’s history of injury and suspension are other factors to consider as team’s weigh how much they might offer to lure him away. This saga has been nothing if not unpredictable to this point, and could take some more twists and turns before we get to March, and the actual start of the 2019 league year.

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