The Pittsburgh Steelers made a pitch to Le'Veon Bell to return to the team prior to the deadline to sign his 2018 franchise tender during their conversations with his agent on Tuesday, league sources said, but the running back was not interested in playing this season. The Steelers also informed Bell of their intent to place the transition tag on him in 2019, sources said, setting up a grievance with the NFLPA.
The Steelers brass very much wanted Bell back and made a concerted effort to explain how they planned to utilize him when conversations picked up with agent Adisa Bakari in the hours ahead of Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline. Bell had until then to sign his tender and be eligible to play in the NFL this season. While Pittsburgh's locker room may not have been that receptive to Bell returning this season after his prolonged absence – as evidenced by the way players mocked the former All Pro and took items from his unused locker after Tuesday's deadline – the coaches and front office definitely wanted him back.
Bell was informed of how the Steelers still very much had a role for him even with James Conner now thriving as the feature back, sources said. They told Bell he would still get regular work in the passing game and spell Conner in the run game. Bell has been focused on maintaining the best market value possible in 2019 – when he aims to secure a record-setting multi-year deal – and the Steelers tried to explain a scenario to the player in which he would still be able to thrive and be featured even in their crowded offense. The Steelers officials did not fear Bell disrupting their recent surge to the top of the AFC North and believed there was an opportunity for both him and the team to benefit from his return, but Bell was clearly not interested.
Bell is aware of the team's intention to place the transition tag on him in 2019, and while the Steelers were consulting with the NFL Management Council about their options in this unprecedented matter – a player on the franchise tag skipping the entire season – Bakari was doing the same with the NFLPA last week. The NFL strongly believes that Bell's transition tag value for 2019 should be the same as any other running back who would be tagged next year, given that he sat out an entire season, and believes it has a strong case to that end, sources said. The NFLPA will argue that Bell deserves a 20 percent raise off the last actual salary he earned in the NFL – his $12.2M salary in 2017 while playing on the franchise tag – and the matter would then head to a grievance proceeding for closure.
It remains to be seen what value is out there for Bell, who will be free to negotiate with any NFL team before signing an offer sheet in 2019. The Steelers will have the right to match that offer and if they refuse they would receive no draft-pick compensation.