If the Steelers want to play high-end hardball with running back Le'Veon Bell, they’ll rescind his franchise tender before he can sign it. If they want to play a lower level of hardball with the holdout tailback, they’ll be able to do so something less than 90 minutes from this posting.
If Bell tries to sign his tender after the Steelers lock in their 53-man roster, the Steelers can place him on roster-exempt status for the first two regular season games, and his salary for those weeks will have to be separately negotiated before he signs the tender.
That could make for an interesting discussion, if the Steelers take the position that they don’t want to pay full freight for Bell while he’s on roster-exempt status. Would a reduction from $855,000 per week be enough to get Bell to refuse to sign? Would the Steelers be willing to do without him for two weeks of the regular season?
The other question is whether the Steelers would spring a request to take less on Bell as he signs, or whether they informed him at some point before the July 16 deadline for doing a long-term deal that if he shows up after 4:00 p.m. ET on September 1, they plan to place him on roster-exempt status and not pay him $855,000 while he’s getting up to speed to play.
Whether the Steelers will do it is a separate question from whether they can. Under the CBA, they have that power, just like they had the power to apply the franchise tag. The only way Bell can block them from trying would be to accept the tender before 4:00 p.m. ET on Saturday.