Le'Veon Bell appears bound for free agency in 2019, and he could sit out half of 2018

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Another deadline passed for Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

The Pittsburgh Steelers and running back Le’Veon Bell had until 4 p.m. Monday to work out a new contract. But the deadline came and went, so Bell will play the 2018 season under his franchise-tagged salary of about $14.544 million, and then he almost certainly will become an unrestricted free agent.

Soon after the deadline passed, Bell posted a statement to Twitter that struck a conciliatory tone toward fans, saying he had hoped to reach an agreement to keep him with the Steelers long term but that “the NFL is a hard business at times.” He added, “trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date.”

to all my Steeler fans, my desire always has been to retire a Steeler…both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times…to the fans that had hope, I’m sorry we let youu down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date…

— Le’Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 16, 2018

That sentiment stood in contrast to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter earlier in the day. During an appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio, Schefter said: “I think it’s possible Le’Veon Bell sits out the first half of the year if he doesn’t get a long-term deal done. The goal at that point would be to hit 2019 free agency healthy, not rack up another 400 touches.”

Bell hinted at such a move in March, two months after he said he would contemplate retirement if forced to play a second consecutive season under the franchise tag.

“I just have to decide if I’m going to play when the time comes,” he told ESPN then.

None of the other players who received the franchise tag — Lions pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah, Rams defensive back Lamarcus Joyner and Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence — reached a long-term contract agreement before Monday’s deadline, meaning all three will play out 2018 on the franchise tag before becoming unrestricted free agents in 2019 (unless they get the tag again).

Bell, 26, has averaged 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game over his career, the most since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. He’s a strong pass-blocker and a consistent pass-catcher, posting at least 75 receptions in three of his five seasons. Bell also led the NFL last season with 321 carries. Basically, he never leaves the field when Pittsburgh has the ball, but he has only averaged slightly more than $5 million per season in salary.

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, earned nearly $18 million over the first two years of his career. The Rams’ Todd Gurley will average nearly $6 million over his first four seasons. Both were first-round picks; Bell was not. He was selected in the second round in 2013, which has hindered his earning potential.

But the Steelers apparently are not willing to budge from their long-held mind-set in which no player’s salary is guaranteed beyond that season. And for every stat that Bell can point to, there’s this:

Since Bell’s rookie year — when he became the back he is today — the Steelers winning percentage in relevant games with him is 70.8%. Without him, it’s 69.2%. https://t.co/ifvuYUsB5Y

— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) April 26, 2018

“I’m the one to bet on myself. And I’ll do it again,” Bell said in March. “I understand how the Steelers do contracts. Last year, I was pounding the table on guaranteed money. That’s not the case. If I’m not getting guaranteed money, I want a lot more up front. . . . It’s year-to-year with the Steelers. Essentially if I sign a four- or five-year deal, I’m playing four or five franchise tags.”

Bell has yet to sign his franchise-tag tender and has not had any contact with his teammates since the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Jaguars in January. Until he signs, he cannot be forced to participate in team activities, and last year he didn’t sign until six days before the season’s first game. Under the collective bargaining agreement, he can wait until November to sign and still accrue a season of service, opening the door to free agency and the open market. Apparently, that possibility is on the table.

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