Bell became ineligible for 2018 when he failed to report to the Steelers on Tuesday. He will now turn his focus to the 2019 offseason, at which point a third franchise tag would be prohibitively expensive for the Steelers, thus giving Bell all the leverage. The Steelers still have the option to use a transition tag for approximately $14.5 million, which would give them the right to match any offer sheet Bell signs with another team. The problem with that option is a lack of draft-pick compensation, whereas Pittsburgh likely would receive a mid-round pick if it simply allowed Bell to become an unrestricted free agent. The final option makes the most sense, which would allow Bell to choose his next home without the Steelers having any involvement. He'll turn 27 years old in February and may find that some teams are worried about his year-long absence from football, even though the running back met his stated goal of avoiding wear and tear during a contract year.
This was the expected outcome for Bell despite him being spotted in Pittsburgh recently. Bell will wait for the offseason, when he will likely hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. Despite skipping all of 2018, a number of teams will likely be vying for his services as one of the league's best backs over the first five years of his career. With the star back off the table, James Conner (concussion) -- who is expected to clear protocol Wednesday -- should remain the workhorse back for the Steelers. Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels also remain on hand as depth options.
Bell returned to Pittsburgh earlier this week but there's been no further indication he intends to report, although owner Art Rooney told SiriusXM NFL Radio he believed the running back would report by Tuesday's deadline. Taking a full season off is a sizable risk for the 26-year-old, but he is apparently content heading into free agency next season knowing Pittsburgh is unlikely to issue the franchise tag a third time due the $25 million cost, though it's worth noting the Steelers could try a transition tag angle. James Conner would continue to be the workhorse back for the Steelers if Bell stays away from the team, though Conner did suffer a concussion Thursday against the Panthers. Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels are the remaining running backs on the Steelers roster.
Owner Art Rooney II told SiriusXM NFL Radio that he believes Bell (contract dispute) will report to the Steelers by next Tuesday's deadline to sign the franchise tender. "I don't know what his plans are, but I would say at this point we expect him to come back next week," Rooney said of Bell on Thursday. "We know he's back in Pittsburgh and so we're hoping to have some communications with him over the weekend and we're kind of expecting he will be back next week."
Rumor and innuendo have dominated Bell's holdout, with a will-he-or-won't-he report to Pittsburgh hanging over the situation throughout the offseason and into the regular season. This week, though, the first signs emerged that the running back is preparing to report. On Monday, he tweeted "Fairwell (sic) Miami," referencing where he's been staying in shape while away from football. By Wednesday, Bell was spotted playing a game of pickup basketball in Pittsburgh, according to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com. Despite his presence within striking distance of the Steelers' facilities, he's missing his ninth consecutive game Thursday against the Panthers. While Bell plays out the string with the only team he's ever known, James Conner will continue to serve as the Steelers' workhorse back.
Though Bell is eligible to receive a franchise tag for the third straight year in 2019, he would be tagged at the quarterback salary number, which is projected for approximately $25 million, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com reports.
Bell has been dissatisfied with receiving the franchise tag for the last two years, but he would presumably be more receptive to the designation if it put him on track to earn an estimated $25 million, which would easily top the salary of any other running back. The Steelers presumably wouldn't be as interested in using the franchise tag on him in that scenario, however, though the team could pursue a transition tag that would keep Bell around at a more affordable price. As for the remainder of 2018, Bell has until Nov. 13 to sign a franchise tender in order to retain eligibility to play this season. The running back was reportedly spotted in the Pittsburgh area Wednesday, fueling speculation that he may soon report to the team and put pen to paper. Bell will at least remain unavailable through the Steelers' Week 10 matchup with the Panthers on Thursday, allowing James Conner to continue serving as the team's lead back.
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