On the day of the Steelers hosting the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football, things have taken a turn for a player on the Steelers who has yet to play for the Steelers. Le'Veon Bell, thought to possibly report on Thursday and likely to report by next Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET to guarantee he can play this year, may not do so after all, thanks to a CBA loophole that he and his agent recently discovered. 

Bell recently left Miami and returned to Pittsburgh, where he's been spotted playing pickup basketball. He is also tweeting with upside down letters, confusing everyone with a message about him looking out for his family.

That's the only message Bell's put out in the last month, give or take, so how do we know that Bell and his agent are plotting on this loophole? Well, according to Maurice Jones-Drew of NFL Media in an appearance on the always-excellent Dave Dameshek Football Program (I don't often recommend podcasts not by me, but Shek's pod is great, check it out here), Bell and his agent, who is also MJD's agent, are "digging" through the CBA to try and figure out Bell's options.

"So what happened was, once that came out that they're now digging and reading and trying to understand the language," Jones-Drew said. "Because there's a lot of language in the CBA, especially for this particular instance. Now the old one was, you have to sign by this or it went back ... they're going back now to really sit down and figure out."

What could they be figuring out? Well let's walk through the actual CBA and break down the situation here. For starters, here's the language in the CBA, signed way back in 2011, for "Section 15. Signing Period for Franchise Players." 

In the event that a player who is designated and tendered as a Franchise Player has not signed a Player Contract with a Club by the Tuesday following the tenth week of the regular season, at 4:00pm New York time, the player shall be prohibited from playing football in the NFL for the remainder of that League Year... 

Put in layman's terms: if Bell doesn't sign his tender by Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 4 p.m. ET, he will not be allowed to play football for anyone during the 2018 season. Under the OLD CBA, not signing by this period would have been a major problem and prohibited him from potentially becoming a free agent the following year. 

Under the NEW CBA however, he might be able to skate into free agency. If he doesn't play, according to the CBA, the Steelers "shall have the right to designate [Bell] as a Franchise Player or a Transition Player" in 2019. Typically speaking in a franchise tag situation, there would be 120 percent bump in the price of the tender. EXCEPT, if Bell is "redesignated as a Franchise Player for the League Year following the League Year in which he does not play, the player may be designated only under Section 2(a)(i) above."

What does "Section 2(a)(i)" consist of? It's the "Required Tender for Franchise Players" and it references "Subsection (b)" of that portion of the CBA.

That "Subsection (b)" makes very clear that Bell will be given a salary of one of three things, whichever is greatest. 

Those three things are: 

  • The "average of the five largest Prior Year Salaries for players at the position (within the categories set forth in Section 7(a) below) with the highest such average" 
  • The 120% of the average of the five largest Prior Year Salaries for players at the position (within the categories set forth in Section 7(a) below) at which the player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year 
  • The 144 percent of Bell's salary the year before

The first one is key there, because it basically means Bell's salary will be the equivalent to the quarterback franchise tag cost. That cost will be north of $25 million for the 2019 season.

In other words, Bell can just not sign his franchise tag at all, not play one snap during the 2018 NFL season and he can then be tagged by the Steelers in one of two ways. 

Either with a franchise tag which will pay him more than $25 million next year, which is not a thing the Steelers are going to do because the cost is too prohibitive. Or the Steelers will give Bell the transition tag, which will effectively make him a free agent, because he'll be able to negotiate a deal with another team. 

The Steelers will be able to match that deal, but it's highly unlikely they will because a) it will be above what they previously offered Bell and b) because James Conner has played so well this season.

It's pretty stunning, really. The hardest thing to figure out is why it took Bell's agent this long to figure out the CBA allowed him to do this. 

What's not hard to figure out is that Bell is probably not going to play this season, because he knows he can avoid injury and still hit free agency while maximizing his value. He might miss out on $13 million this year, but he's already pretty far down that road, with the ability to recoup it in full whenever he signs a new deal with a new team.

We though this might be the beginning of the end of Bell's time in Pittsburgh, but the reality is it might have already ended.