Now that the Steelers can’t trade running back Le'Veon Bell, the possible outcomes to the relationship are more limited.
Here are the options: (1) Bell shows up, signs his franchise tender by 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, November 13, and finishes the season as a member of the Steelers; (2) Bell doesn’t show up by 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, November 13, which prevents him from playing for the Steelers or anyone else in 2018; or (3) the Steelers rescind the franchise tender before Bell can sign it, making him a free agent.
If Bell signs the tender before November 13, he’ll get credit for fulfilling the contract in 2018, forcing the Steelers to choose between applying the franchise tag in 2019 (they won’t, because by rule it would be the quarterback tender), applying the transition tag (they possibly would, but likely wouldn’t match an offer sheet he signs elsewhere given the presence of James Conner), or letting him walk away in free agency. If Bell doesn’t sign the tender before November 13, the Steelers could apply the franchise tag in 2019 at the same amount as it was in 2018, i.e. $14.54 million. The Steelers also could use the transition tag or let Bell walk away in 2019.
Here’s a thought that emerged during Tuesday’s #PFTPM podcast, in response to a question from a listener. What if the Steelers privately tell Bell that if he doesn’t show up at all in 2018 (saving them $855,000 per week for the remaining seven weeks of the regular season) the Steelers won’t tag him again in 2019?
It would be an unenforceable agreement, and technically a CBA violation, but teams and players routinely strike unenforceable agreements that technically violate the CBA. In this case, the Steelers would avoid spending nearly $6 million on a player they no longer want, and Bell would avoid feeling compelled to show up for the final seven weeks in order to ensure that he’ll become a free agent.
It would be a win-win outcome, with the Steelers letting Bell leave in March and getting consideration toward compensatory draft picks in 2020. And it makes the most sense, even if no one would ever admit that it happened.
So, basically, don’t be shocked if Bell doesn’t show up, and if the Steelers don’t tag him next year. That would be at best circumstantial evidence of a wink-nod agreement that allows Bell to get to free agency without forcing him or the team to continue a relationship that neither side seems to be interested in continuing.