Neither Bell not his agent, Adisa Bakari, have given the team an indication of when he will report as another week of the season goes by and the running back passes on another $850,000 in game checks. He must sign his contract by Nov. 13, the Tuesday after Week 10 games are concluded, to be eligible to play for any NFL team this season, per the collective bargaining agreement. While Bell has not conveyed that he will definitely play this season, Steelers coaches and officials are expecting at this point that he will sign his franchise tender then.
However, per the CBA, it does not specifically stipulate that a player must report to his team by that Tuesday, only that he must sign any term sheets or contracts by the close of NFL business that day (4 p.m. ET) in order to be eligible to play at all in that season. Bell could conceivably skip that deadline as well and sit out the entire 2018 NFL season. He could also sign his contract on that Tuesday but potentially not report until as late as Saturday to be eligible to be added to the roster in time for Sunday's game (not that he would be dressing for the game in that scenario, anyway).
If Bell were to skip the entire season, the Steelers would strongly considering applying the franchise or transition tag in 2019, I'm told. That would trigger what could be a heated arbitration process with the NFLPA as to what the 2019 salary for Bell should be under those tags, but sources said the NFL Management Council believes that in some circumstances Bell could be transitioned at as low as the 2019 running back transition number (roughly $9 million). He could have made a maximum of $14.5 million on the franchise tag this season. The transition tag would give the Steelers a window to match any offer Bell receives, with no draft-pick compensation if he does depart.
As previously reported, the Steelers plan to use a two-week roster exemption for Bell when he does report – players are generally paid at a reduced rate while on that exempt list – to determine what kind of shape he is in. The team would be open to having him back and finding a role for him – Pittsburgh is thin at receiver right now beyond their top duo – but has no idea what kind of physical condition he is in, with details of his activities while he's been away from them quite limited.
No teams called to attempt to acquire Bell at last week's trade deadline, sources said, which may be an ominous sign for the former All Pro as he attempts to determine his market value for next season. Landing a long-term mega-deal after sitting out this long may prove to be quite difficult, given how his stance this season has been interpreted around the league, even if he manages to put up big numbers after a Pittsburgh return.