Le'Veon Bell, Steelers fail to reach long-term deal ahead of deadline

The Pittsburgh Steelers and running back Le’Veon Bell failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension before Monday’s 4 p.m. franchise tag deadline, and his agent says that means it is likely Bell’s last season with the team.

“His intention was to retire as a Steeler,” Adisa Bakari told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will be Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.”

Bell will play on the franchise tag for the second consecutive year barring an unforeseen development. He tweeted after Monday’s deadline passed that “2018 will be my best season to date.”

The parties reopened negotiations last week and talked throughout Monday hoping to spark something, but there hasn’t been much momentum toward a contract over the past few months.

“It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player,” Bakari said.

The Bell negotiation was one of the most complicated in recent Steelers history because of Bell’s leverage under the franchise tag, a sagging running back market and Bell’s conviction to be paid as one of the game’s best playmakers regardless of position. It has been more than 500 days since the Steelers first tagged Bell at $12.1 million on Feb. 27, 2017.

“Even though we could not reach a long-term contract agreement with Le’Veon Bell, we are excited he will be with the team in 2018,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement. “We worked very hard to find common ground, but we were unable to accomplish that prior to today’s deadline. Le’Veon will play this season under the exclusive franchise tag designation.

“After the 2018 season is completed, we again will attempt to work out a long-term contract with Le’Veon in the hope that he will continue his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

The Steelers made two sizable contract offers — one last summer and one this winter — beginning at around $13.3 million per year on average and working their way up slightly. Bell turned both of them down, telling ESPN in April that he wouldn’t take a contract worth less than $14.5 million annually, based on the amount of his 2018 tag number. For months after that, negotiations lacked real momentum.

The Steelers felt their offers were good and didn’t want to overinflate a position that hasn’t landed a long-term deal worth more than $10 million per year since Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson in 2011.

With that in mind, Bell always knew he could play out two franchise tags worth a combined $26.62 million and have a chance at true free agency as a 27-year-old in 2019, setting the stage for peers Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott in future years.

The Bell saga twisted unexpectedly in January when the star back told ESPN he would consider retirement if asked to play on the tag for the second straight year, a stance he has since softened, though he had hinted at missing a second straight training camp in absence of a long-term deal.

“Just get the numbers straight, exactly where we want them,” Bell said then. “I’m not going to settle for anything. I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at.”

Bell didn’t sign last season’s tag until Sept. 4 and showed some rust with 3.46 yards per carry through the first three weeks. But he finished the year as an All-Pro, rushing 321 times for 1,291 yards along with 85 caches for 655 yards and 11 total touchdowns.

Bell has 7,996 total yards through 62 career regular-season games, the most of any NFL player during that span since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, outdistancing Eric Dickerson (7,842), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

After the season, Colbert told Bell personally the team wanted him to retire a Steeler. Team president Art Rooney echoed the same sentiment in an end-of-year interview with local media.

Despite both sides wanting to finish a contract, Steelers players got used to life without Bell. They want him to get paid but also want him on the field with them.

“I think last year a lot of guys were like, ‘Oh, Le’Veon’s not here,'” said receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey during offseason workouts. “Nobody cares. We’re out here and we have to get work done. … We’ll see him when we see him. Next man up.”  

Added safety Morgan Burnett: “You definitely understand, because it’s definitely a business. Within your career, it seems long but it’s only a short period of your life. So the stuff you accomplish, the money you make within this time, you want to find a way to make it expand the rest of your life.”

The Steelers report to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, for training camp on July 25. Bell has used boxing and a vegan diet this offseason to stay in shape, holding off from most football exercises to keep his knees fresh.

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