In a move that will likely propel the Steelers running back into free agency in the offseason, Bell did not sign the team’s franchise tag tender on Tuesday. As a result of not signing before the league’s 4 p.m. ET deadline, Bell is not eligible to play the remainder of this season and will once again qualify for free agency in March.
The Steelers will have the option to designate Bell as their franchise player again this offseason, but the one-year salary tied to Bell’s third straight franchise tag is expected to exceed $25 million, a payout believed to be far too prohibitive for a Pittsburgh return.
A few hours before the deadline, head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Tuesday that Bell hadn’t returned a text message or phone call from him throughout the impasse.
“I understand that business is an element of this,” Tomlin said.
Regardless of what happens next offseason, it has drawn a curtain on the Bell drama that has dragged on in Pittsburgh all season long as speculation has swirled for months about when he would rejoin the Steelers. Instead, Bell made good on a threat he made nearly 11 months ago, when he said he would consider sitting out the season if the team kept him from free agency via a second franchise tag. At the time, the threat felt hollow largely because of Bell’s 2018 payday: a one-season, fully guaranteed deal of $14.5 million.
But Bell’s commitment to carrying out his threat ultimately made it real, as he now has forfeited the entirety of that salary, along with some ancillary retirement benefits he would have collected from the league for playing this season. Barring the Steelers unexpectedly tagging him again with either the franchise or transition tag (neither of which is ideal for the team), he is expected to be one of the prize free agents next offseason. If that materializes, Bell would hit the market having just turned 27 in February of 2019.
For the moment, it closes a contentious chapter between Bell and the Steelers, who have been buoyed at the running back spot by the rise of backup James Conner. Over the length of his holdout, Bell had some details of the Steelers’ previous contract offers leaked to the media, while teammates were critical of his holdout at times. Most notably, the idea of Bell sitting out the entire season picked up intensity after Tomlin said of his possible return, “We need volunteers, not hostages.”
On Tuesday, Bell chose neither designation for 2018, removing himself from the Steelers altogether.
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