While the Steelers and the agent for Le'Veon Bell never formally agreed to terms on a new contract with the deadline to sign the player on the franchise tag approaching this summer, they did draw up a contract all sides hoped the running back would sign, according to league sources.
That deal would have paid Bell in excess of $18 million in the first year of the contract -- a staggering figure for a running back at a time when the position's salaries have decreased -- and the offer averaged $13 million per year over the first three years, but Bell never relented. He and his agent had set up shop in South Florida, and, with the 4 p.m. deadline nearing on July 17, all paperwork was ready to be faxed back to the Steelers, but Bell never put pen to paper.
The Steelers knew any contract terms always were subject to Bell's approval, and that even though his advisors and union officials believed the deal was incredibly strong for the player, there was no guarantee he would actually sign. They were optimistic he may sign, sources said, but never assumed the deal was done.
Bell has been adamant that he earn $15 million or more per year, looking to push the running back market back to where Adrian Peterson once set it before a suspension and injuries led to Peterson's demise in Minnesota (he signed a team-friendly deal with New Orleans this offseason). It seems unlikely that Bell wavers from that stance should he stay healthy and avoid suspension himself this season. Pittsburgh significantly sweetened the pot for him several times during negotiations -- giving him $18 million by next March was a 50 percent improvement over the roughly $12 million he will earn this season on the franchise tag -- and still it was not enough to close the deal.
The Steelers will renew attempts to sign Bell long-term as soon as the season concludes -- barring changes to his health or suspension status -- and in the meantime, any concerns about him reporting in September out of shape were quickly allayed. Team sources said Bell is in tremendous shape and looked sharp and explosive in his only week of practice ahead of the Week 1 opener against Cleveland. Coach Mike Tomlin may opt to limit his workload in the game to limit the propensity of a muscle injury (hamstring problems are fairly commonplace for players who skip training camp), but physically Bell looked up to the task in practice, I'm told.