Agent: 2018 will be RB Bell’s last in Pittsburgh

The deadline for players given the franchise tag to sign long-term deals passed with a relative thud Monday — until Le’Veon Bell’s agent dropped a bombshell.

Sixteen minutes before the 4 p.m. ET deadline, ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted that none of the four players who fall into that class — Los Angeles Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner, Detroit defensive end Ziggy Ansah, Dallas defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, and Bell, the Pittsburgh running back — would sign a long-term deal. Then he tweeted comments from Adisa Bakari, Bell’s agent, stating that the All-Pro’s days with the Steelers are numbered.

“His intention was to retire as a Steeler,” Bakari told Schefter of Bell, who will play his second straight season under the tag. “But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler. … It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player.”

Shortly afterward, Bell himself tweeted a note to Steelers fans, reiterating much of what his agent said but not committing to 2018 being his last season in Pittsburgh: “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 [sic] down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date…”

Earlier Monday, Schefter reportedly said Bell could sit out half of the upcoming season if he did not reach a long-term agreement, with the hope of being healthy for another free-agent window come next year.

“I think it’s possible Le’Veon Bell sits out first half of the year if he doesn’t get a long-term deal done,” Schefter reportedly said on SiriusXM. “The goal at that point would be to hit 2019 free agency healthy, not rack up another 400 touches.”

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert released a statement, saying, “Even though we could not reach a long-term contract agreement with Le’Veon Bell, we are excited he will be with the team in 2018. We worked very hard to find common ground, but we were unable to accomplish that prior to today’s deadline. Le’Veon will play this season under the exclusive franchise tag designation.”

“After the 2018 season is completed, we again will attempt to work out a long-term contract with Le’Veon in the hope that he will continue his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers,” he continued.

As Schefter pointed out, this would make Bell, 26, the marquee free agent next offseason.

In his five seasons in Pittsburgh, Bell has had at least 1,200 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving three times. He is a two-time first-team All-Pro, has been named to three Pro Bowls and is generally regarded as the best all-around running back in the league.

But his contract squabbles with the club have become an annual offseason ritual.

After not signing under the franchise tag until Sept. 4 last season, Bell averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per carry through the first three weeks. But he finished with a league-high 321 carries for 1,291 yards along with 85 catches for 655 yards and 11 total touchdowns.

The two franchise-tag contracts for Bell — 2017 and 2018 — will total a combined $26.62 million, ESPN reported.

According to ESPN, Bell’s 7,996 total yards through 62 career regular-season games is the most of any NFL player in that span since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, ahead of Eric Dickerson (7,842).

According to NFL operations, the franchise tag rule that applies to all four of the aforementioned players reads:

“At 4:00 p.m., New York time, deadline for any club that designated a Franchise Player to sign such player to a multiyear contract or extension. After this date, the player may sign only a one-year contract with his prior club for the 2018 season, and such contract cannot be extended until after the club’s last regular season game.”

–Field Level Media