Le’Veon Bell trade rumors: Steelers RB not planning to report this week, waiting for NFL trade deadline

We are just about at the breaking point for the Le’Veon Bell situation. The Steelers returned from their bye week on Monday, magically finding themselves in first place in the AFC North without playing a football game, and turning their eyes both towards the Browns in Week 8 and also towards their running back, who remains AWOL during his contract dispute. 

Bell did not report with his teammates on Monday morning, which means he has been missing for the entire season now. Bell originally insinuated — and apparently told his teammates — he would show up Week 1 unless he had a new contract

The running back bailed on those plans, and now there are three final inflection points for seeing Bell show up. We’ll get to those in a minute as well as why he’s holding out, where he could end up playing and all the latest Bell rumors. Bookmark this page to stay on top of the latest news and updates. 

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Tuesday Oct. 23: Things remain kind of calm on the Bell front, with Le’Veon not showing up to the Steelers ahead of their Week 8 game against the Browns. He still has a few days/hours to report ahead of the game, but according to NFL Media’s Jim Trotter, the plan is to stay away until after this week, and likely after the trade deadline.

The logical explanation here is Bell doesn’t WANT to be traded (as I explain below) and is waiting to show up until after the Steelers leverage is gone. If they can’t move him, he can come in, sign his tender and go to work for $855,000 per week, depending on how they handle the roster exemption (also explained below).

Monday, Oct. 22: Bell is not expected to return this week, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN and there is a growing sense that Bell will be away from the Steelers until after the trade deadline next Tuesday. Indeed, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, Bell is not reporting at all this week. 

Explaining the holdout

The basics of this holdout are pretty easy to understand: the Steelers placed the franchise tag on Bell for the second straight season, giving him a one-year, fully guaranteed contract. This particular contract pays him $14.54 million for the 2018 season, although he’s losing roughly $855,000 for every week that he skips. The Collective Bargaining Agreement allows NFL teams to issue a tender to players for a certain amount by position (it changes year by year but is based on the top salaries at the position). The second time Bell was tagged (this year) his one-year salary was 120 percent of his cap hit from last year. If the Steelers wanted to tag Bell again, they would have to do at the cost of the quarterback franchise tag (north of $25 million for next season, an untenable contract). 

Bell wants to be paid like both a running back AND a wide receiver and has turned down some pretty substantial offers from Pittsburgh over the last two years. 

The Steelers are not interested in investing in him at the financial level he wants, believing instead they can find cheaper production at the running back position. They’re not wrong: James Conner’s been fantastic as a dirt-cheap, third-round replacement for Bell this season. 

Bell doesn’t want the Steelers, who are going to let him go after this year, to run him into the ground, cause an injury and potentially result in him hurting his value in free agency. So he’s staying away from Pittsburgh until he absolutely has to return. 

When does he have to come back?

The only hard and fast date for Bell to return to the Steelers is before Week 10. If he does not report ahead of Week 10 and sign his tender, his contract will toll and he will not accrue a season towards free agency. If he holds out until then, returns and signs his deal, he can still become an unrestricted free agent after 2018. We saw Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson do this most recently — prior to the latest CBA, the two veterans refused to report on the franchise tag until late in the season. 

Bell could also return as early as this week — he told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler he was shooting to come back during the Steelers Week 7 bye or potentially after, ahead of Pittsburgh’s game this week at home against the Browns. 

The other target date is following Week 8, immediately after the trade deadline (Tuesday, Oct 30 at 4 p.m. ET). Bell might see that as the prime leverage spot, because returning on Tuesday afternoon or on Wednesday morning would nullify the Steelers’ ability to trade him. Without Bell signing his tender, the Steelers can’t send him anywhere. I’m not sure a trade would be bad, per se, but Bell might want the security of playing in Pittsburgh’s offense the final eight or nine weeks of the regular season, knowing he can come in late, pick things up fairly seamlessly and produce at a high level. Struggling on a new team would be a red flag in free agency. 

What is the final outcome here?

Three things can happen, with a few variations on the first option.

One, Bell can report to the Steelers. At this point, he would come to the team and sign his tender and Pittsburgh would have a decision to make. They could use, as CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora has pointed out, a roster exemption on the running back to get him in shape for the first two weeks after he reports. That’s a little dicey, because it could involve negotiating how much Bell would make in those weeks while he’s not playing. Or the Steelers could just toss him out on the field. That seems unlikely. They could also pay him to sit on the bench while they keep playing Conner. That’s too petty for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. I think the most likely scenario involves Bell reporting, the Steelers paying him 75 percent (or so) of his weekly salary while using their roster exemption for two weeks, and then Pittsburgh blending Bell and Conner in the backfield at about a 60-40 split down the stretch. 

Two, Bell could not report. This isn’t happening. He wants to gobble up that free agency apple.

Three, Bell reports and is traded. If he shows up before the trade deadline and signs his tender, the Steelers can ship him out. The Steelers could also find a trade partner willing to go down the path of discussing a deal, but the two sides would then need to convince Bell to come in and sign his tender to make the deal happen. Whoever traded for him would not be able to negotiate a long-term deal with Bell but could give him more money in 2018 voluntarily. (Good luck with that.) 

So who would trade for him?

The market is shrinking pretty quickly, because of the circumstances. You need a team that is: trying to compete this year, running back needy, in a good spot with their salary cap, willing to sacrifice a third-round pick or better, and willing to lose Bell next offseason. 

The AFC doesn’t have a whole lot of possibilities here. The Patriots would make sense after seeing Sony Michel go down, but the Steelers aren’t trading Bell to New England and hurting their own chances of making the Super Bowl. The Dolphins and Jets qualify as fringe contenders who could use Bell. Maybe the Texans? The Jaguars already traded for Carlos Hyde and might pose the same problem as New England, although they’ve stunk lately. The Chargers would be interesting if Melvin Gordon was really hurt, but, again, do the Steelers want to help conference competition?

The NFC offers a few teams. The Eagles still make a lot of sense for Bell, as La Canfora has been saying for a while. Although it’s completely fair to say the Eagles problem is not just at running back — they need help at cornerback, and need some wideout depth too. But adding Bell would take pressure off Carson Wentz and allow them to salt away 17-0 leads in more efficient fashion. 

You could make a case the Redskins should trade for Bell to shore up the position with the aging and injured Adrian Peterson, but there might be an ego problem there. Peterson has played well too! The Packers could be a candidate, but they already have a couple decent backs (Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones) they can’t manage to incorporate. The Buccaneers are starting to get Ronald Jones going and might be too far behind to make a deal like this, although they are now 3-3. The Seahawks would be a sleeper here. 

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