With exclusive-rights free agent (i.e., not a free agent at all) Alejandro Villanueva unsigned but nevertheless showing up for offseason workouts, exclusively-tagged running back Le’Veon Bell hasn’t. The question becomes when will he?
Under the rules of the labor agreement, Bell can stay away until only days before the regular-season opener in Cleveland and still collect the full $12.1 million he’s due to earn under the franchise tag. The Steelers can’t do anything about it, with one exception.
At some point, the Steelers can rescind the tender. It would make Bell a free agent, and the longer the Steelers wait to do it the harder it will be for Bell to get anything close to a deal that averages even $10 million per year. The running back market remains well below what Bell will earn this year, and even a star player like Bell would be hard pressed to cash in, especially after offseason workouts or, if the Steelers wait to rescind the tender until September, after training camp and the preseason.
By then, depth charts will be set and budgets will have been exhausted and the oft-injured and twice-suspended Bell would potentially end up with a one-year deal at best that would fall far short of $12.1 million.
In the interim, the Steelers will get to see what other running backs can do in an offense with a solid line and a potent passing game. Whether it’s Fitzgerald Toussaint or Knile Davis or rookie and fan favorite James Conner or someone else, the Steelers could decide to save millions by severing ties with Bell, if they believe that the others will be close enough.
To date, there’s been no indication that the Steelers would do it. A year ago, there was no indication that the Panthers would rescind cornerback Josh Norman’s tender, either.
When these decisions happen, they’re made and executed swiftly, given the possibility that the player will catch wind of it and pounce on the tender. For Bell, whose end game may be to reluctantly take the $12.1 million after the July 15 deadline for signing a long-term deal comes and goes, the risk that the tender will be withdrawn lingers until he accepts it.
If he ultimately decides to exercise his right to not show up through training camp and the preseason, that risk will necessarily grow.