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Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Feels Real This Time

The All-Pro running back also held out last year, but this season he may miss Week 1—or more. Here are answers to all your questions.

Le’Veon Bell Getty Images/Ringer illustration

While the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for their Week 1 tilt against the Browns, running back Le’Veon Bell has yet to show up to practice. Instead of arriving in time for training camp or preseason, the two-time first-team All-Pro spent the end of summer congratulating others on their contract extensions, promoting his rap career, and tweeting with liberal numbers of laughing emoji. Meanwhile, the team insists that it is focused on “the guys that have been here,” and that it is prepared for the season with or without Bell. Guard Ramon Foster said backup running back James Conner is ready. Head coach Mike Tomlin seems frustrated about Bell’s return, GM Kevin Colbert is disappointed, and Steelers fans are pissed.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because all of that happened last year to the letter, from Colbert sounding disappointed, to Tomlin sounding frustrated, to Steelers fans crying about it, to Foster and the team praising Conner, to saying it’ll be ready with or without Bell, to focusing on “the guys that are here,” to Bell tweeting relevant contract extensions to Bell hyping his rap career to Bell abusing the cry-laughing emoji. The Steelers even played the Browns in Week 1 last season, too. Time, like Pittsburgh’s logo, is a flat circle.

Except for one crucial detail: Bell hasn’t shown up yet. Last season, he arrived the Friday of Labor Day weekend. But that came and went this year, and Bell still isn’t at work. There now seems to be a real chance that Bell will miss Week 1, and perhaps more, and his teammates no longer sound like they have his back. What’s going on? When will he come back? Most importantly, is it safe to start making fun of the people who drafted him in fantasy this year?

Why is Bell unhappy with his contract?

Bell is set to earn $14.5 million in 2018, more money than any other running back this season, so it’s a fair question. The key phrase is this season. Bell has been hit with the franchise tag two years in a row (to refresh your memory, the franchise tag is a one-year contract worth the average salary of the top five players at the player’s position or 120 percent of that player’s previous salary, whichever is greater). Bell, like most players on the tag, prefers the security of a long-term deal. An expiring contract is always a perilous experiment for a running back, and this is the third consecutive season Bell is set to play on one.

Adding to Bell’s grievances is the money flood of the last two weeks. Aaron Rodgers became the highest-paid quarterback ever, Odell Beckham Jr. became the highest-paid receiver ever, Aaron Donald became the highest-paid defender ever, and 24 hours later Khalil Mack usurped Donald as the new highest-paid defender ever. Together, those four players combined to negotiate $345 million in practical guarantees. That doesn’t include Todd Gurley, who signed a four-year extension worth $45 million guaranteed that obliterated the running back market in July.

Bell has as strong of a claim to be the highest paid at his position and was reportedly offered just $10 million in fully guaranteed money by Pittsburgh in July.

Can the Steelers just give him a new contract?

No. The deadline for players on the franchise tag to sign a long-term deal was July 16. The Steelers and Bell couldn’t agree on anything before then, so Bell must play the 2018 season on the franchise tag. The Steelers can’t sign him to a long-term contract until after the season ends on December 30.

If he can’t sign a new contract, what does he want?

The answer likely involves maximizing his earning potential for 2019. Bell is set to be a free agent in March at 27 years young, and he could make a boatload of money on the open market. Just about the only thing that could suppress his value is injury, and the Steelers haven’t had any concern in monitoring Bell’s usage. He’s recorded the fifth-most touches of any player through the first 62 games of their career. His 406 touches last year led the league and were almost 20 percent more than the second-place LeSean McCoy’s 346. The Steelers seem content to use most of the tread on Bell’s tires (by “tread” I mean “cartilage,” and by “tires” I mean “knees”).

Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, all but admitted that was his and Bell’s line of thinking in a SiruisXM NFL Radio interview Wednesday, saying “you can read between those lines” when asked a question about whether the plan was to minimize Bell’s touches.

Avoiding another 400-touch season will reduce the odds that Bell will get injured, minimize his enormous workload, and make him more valuable on the open market. There’s a big cost to this strategy. Bell isn’t being fined because he isn’t technically under contract, but every game he misses will cost him $855,529, according to former agent Joel Corry. That’s more money lost each week than most Americans earn in a decade, but it might make sense for Bell to take the hit. Todd Gurley just earned $45 million guaranteed from the Rams in July, and while Gurley is younger, Bell will have have the ability to negotiate with multiple teams. As long as he gets to free agency intact, Bell may feel that he can make up those game checks with ease.

How are his teammates handling his absence?

Poorly! When it was clear that Bell wasn’t coming on Wednesday, the offensive line –– a group whose job is literally to protect their teammates –– offered rare criticism of Bell, relayed by Steelers beat writers Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, and Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, and national NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala.

Starting All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey …

… and All-Pro right guard David DeCastro …

… and starting left guard (and union representative) Ramon Foster all lit into Bell.

So how many games will he miss?

If Bell’s goal is to play in Week 1, the latest he can come to Steelers practice is Saturday at 4 p.m., according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The Steelers have a plan to get him game-ready in five days, but Bell was a no-show on Wednesday and is unlikely to play Sunday regardless.

If Bell’s goal is to protect himself from an extended workload, as his agent suggested, he’ll be out much longer. However, Bell is unlikely to sit out the whole season. His 2019 free agency depends on the Steelers deciding it costs too much to franchise tag him a third year in a row. Currently, the Steelers would pay Bell more than $23 million if they tag him again in 2019. But if Bell doesn’t sign his franchise tender by the November deadline and fails to play at all this season, the 2018 season won’t count in that calculation, and the Steelers could once again franchise tag him for the 2018 price of $14.5 million and keep him off of the market for another year, CBS’s Joel Corry reported.

It’s likely that Bell will sign the tender to play this year before that November deadline, and if he does, he’ll likely return to the field (assuming the Steelers line blocks for him and doesn’t pull a stunt from The Longest Yard). If he continues his holdout after signing the deal, the Steelers could begin fining him, since he’d then be breaking his contract. That would put him on track to come back to Pittsburgh, at the latest, in mid-November, and still become a free agent in March. Bell floated this plan six months ago when he gave an interview to Billboard about his music ambitions.

“If I’ll be out till Week One, if I’ll be out till Week Ten, or if I’m gonna be out there at all,” Bell said at the time. “It depends on how I feel at that time and moment.”

Can the Steelers trade him?

No, because Bell is not under contract. If the team wants to part ways early, it can rescind the franchise tag offer and make him a free agent now, as the Panthers did with Josh Norman in 2016.

How does this affect my fantasy team?

Stop everything you are doing (including breathing) and go add Conner now.

How does this affect the Steelers?

It might not. Bell is one of the most versatile backs in the league, but if you remove games in which the team rested starters, the Steelers have a nearly identical points per game in games without Bell as they do with him. The Steelers have the best offensive line in football; a deep receiving corp with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Washington; and a potentially beloved backup running back in Conner, who went to college at Pitt and seems ready to succeed Bell. Bell will be a convenient scapegoat if the Steelers struggle, but the move may affect the fate of the fantasy teams that drafted Bell more than it will affect Pittsburgh’s win-loss record in September and October.

If he does return, he’ll be aiming high. His agent alluded to this in the Sirius XM interview, when he reiterated that Bell’s intention is “to make this the best statistical season of his career.” If Bell parachutes into the Steelers’ Super Bowl run midway through the season, he could be aiming to parlay the most rest he’s had in his pro career into a lights-out stretch. That could prove he is still peaking just as he hits the open market.

Does his new album have any bangers?

No. Truthfully, it’s even worse than Cole Beasley’s album, but last year’s “Juice” is decent for a guy with a full-time job.

Maybe if he gets a new contract he’ll be able to afford a Ty Dolla $ign feature.