Last year, after the Steelers and running back Le'Veon Bell failed to strike a long-term deal before the mid-July deadline for doing so, Bell stayed away as long as possible. He showed up eventually on Labor Day, signed his franchise tender, and made the full $12.1 million.
This year, if the Steelers and Bell don’t do a long-term deal by Monday at 4:00 p.m. ET, many presume he’ll do the same. And while it’s useful for Bell to have the Steelers think it will happen that way (since it creates more of an incentive to sign him), there’s a case to be made for Bell showing up for training camp and the preseason.
If Monday’s deadline passes without Bell signing a long-term deal, Bell will have a clear path to the open market in March 2019, because the Steelers would have to apply the quarterback tender if he’s franchise-tagged a third time. So if that’s the post-July 16 scenario, Bell arguably would have an incentive to be as prepared as possible to have the best season he can, maximizing his value as he prepares for his better-late-than-never shot at unrestricted free agency.
Last year, Bell finished with 1,291 rushing yards and 655 receiving yards. But he struggled out of the gates, with 32 yards rushing in the season opener, an average of 3.2 yards per carry in the team’s first two games, and only one total touchdown through three weeks.
Bell finally got it going in Week Four, with 144 rushing yards, 42 receiving yards, and a pair of touchdowns against the Ravens in Baltimore. If the slow start can be attributed in any way to Bell showing up six days before the first Sunday of the season, maybe Bell would have had an even bigger 2017.
The other side of this one, of course, is that 1,946 yards from scrimmage would be more than good enough to maximizing his earnings in March, and that showing up for camp and the preseason would serve only to present more opportunities to suffer the kind of injury that would keep him from cashing in.
Either way, the analysis changes once the possibility of a long-term deal evaporates. For now, Bell needs the Steelers to think he won’t show. After Monday, Bell would be wise to revisit that stance.