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Explaining the ins and outs of Le’Veon Bell’s absence from Steelers

Joe Rutter
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell plays against the Jaguars Saturday, Jan. 14, 2018 at Heinz Field.

With Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell missing another day of practice Thursday, his time away from the team is inching closer toward being a holdout rather than an absence.

Bell’s controversial stance, particularly the events of the past few days, can be confusing. Here is a primer that hopefully explains everything at stake in the Bell saga — from the franchise tag to the roster exemption to the financial implications on both sides.

What led to this point: In March, the Steelers used a franchise tag on Bell for the second time to keep him from entering free agency. The franchise tag was “exclusive,” meaning Bell could not negotiate with other teams. The franchise tag is a tool teams can use once per season to keep its best player, but the price is costly.

The first time the Steelers used the franchise tag on Bell, in 2017, it was worth $12.12 million. By using it the second time, the Steelers had to give Bell a 20 percent increase over his prior salary, which increased the tender to $14.544 million.

Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Steelers had until July 16 to negotiate a long-term contract with Bell. Once that deadline passed, they were barred from resuming negotiations until after the season. The two sides didn’t agree to a deal, and Bell reportedly turned down a five-year offer worth $70 million.

What is Bell’s end game?: Money. It’s always money. Bell wants to be paid in the category of an Antonio Brown, who is making $17 million per season. He also has watched Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Odell Beckham Jr. and Todd Gurley get record-setting contracts in the past month.

Why wasn’t he in training camp?: Although the Steelers used the $14.5 million tag on Bell, he still has not signed it. As an unsigned player, he was under no obligation to report to training camp or any other offseason duties.

When was he expected to report? All indications pegged Labor Day as his anticipated arrival. Last year, Bell signed his tag, took a physical and practiced on Labor Day, which was a bonus day of work for the team in advance of the season opener. This year, Bell skipped the bonus day.

Why were Steelers players so bitter Wednesday when Bell didn’t show up?: They believed Bell would join them in time to prepare for the season opener Sunday in Cleveland. They were understanding of his business stance leading up to this week. Once he missed practice Wednesday, players were critical because they viewed Bell as putting his own interests ahead of the team.

What changed from last year?: Most likely, it is the record contracts that were signed by other players in the past month. Bell wants his piece of the pie, and he wants to limit his risk of injury or overuse this season because it could limit his bargaining power once he reaches free agency.

Didn’t his agent say Bell would report for the start of the season?: It’s true that Adisa Bakari said that in the summer during an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio, but he couched it with the term “barring something exceptional.” Bakari said something “exceptional” happened in the interim and although he didn’t specify anything, he likely was referring to Mack holding out and forcing a trade from the Oakland Raiders. Mack signed a six-year, $141 million deal once he was traded to the Chicago Bears.

Aren’t the Mack and Bell situations different?: Yes, Mack was holding out while entering the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. Bell is staying away while he’s under the franchise tag. Bell also can’t sign a long-term contract if he is traded. (See below)

How long can he hold out?: Per the CBA, Bell can miss up to 10 games and still be credited with a full season toward free agency. However, he does not get credited for any time if he is placed on the exempt list, and the Steelers are permitted to seek a two-week exemption after Bell signs his franchise tag.

What is at stake financially?: For each week Bell remains absent, he will lose out on a check worth approximately $855,000. Players are paid for 17 weeks of the NFL season — 16 games and a bye week. For each week Bell misses, that $855,000 would be credited toward the Steelers’ salary cap.

What is the Steelers recourse once Bell reports?: They can apply for a two-week roster exemption once Bell signs his franchise tag. Per the CBA, the Steelers do not have to pay Bell for either of those two weeks while he is exempt. They also could opt to pay him while he is exempt.

Can the Steelers rescind the franchise tag?: Yes, but it would make Bell an unrestricted free agent and allow him to sign with any team for any number of years. The Steelers also would receive no compensation.

Can the Steelers trade Bell?: Not until he signs the franchise tag. Once he is signed, the Steelers could trade Bell to another team, provided Bell reports prior to the NFL trading deadline, which this year is 4 p.m. Oct. 30.

Can Bell sign a long-term deal if he is traded?: Not until after the season. The same no-negotiations rule after July 16 applies to any team that acquires Bell.

Can Bell get his $14.544 million even if he sits out several weeks?: The Steelers could pay him any amount over that value if they wish, not that they would ever do that. It would set a bad precedent. The Steelers also could pay him the entire $14.544 million no matter how many games he misses. Again, do not expect that to happen. That would be rewarding Bell for staying away from the team, and the Steelers aren’t inclined to do that.

If Bell finishes the season with the Steelers, can they use the franchise tag a third time?: Yes, but it would come at the steepest of possible costs. Instead of getting a percentage increase on his pay, Bell would received the average of the top-5 salaries at the highest-paid position, which in this case is quarterback. Since the top quarterbacks are now earning about $30 million annually, Bell would be in that salary range under a third franchise tag.

If Bell leaves in free agency in 2019, will the Steelers receive compensation?: Yes, most likely a third-round compensatory draft pick.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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