Le'Veon Bell will be the NFL's highest-paid running back next season under less-than-ideal circumstances for the player and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The franchise tag deadline came and went Monday without a long-term deal for Bell, who will play on a $12.12 million exclusive franchise tag in 2017. Next year, the Steelers can tag Bell again at around $14 million or re-sign him. As expected, Bell's negotiations with the Steelers pressed against the 4 p.m. deadline, a similar theme with star players such as Dez Bryant and Von Miller in recent years.
"Unfortunately, we were unable to agree to terms on a long-term contract with Le'Veon Bell prior to today's deadline," general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement. "Le'Veon is scheduled to play this year under the Exclusive Franchise Tag designation. We will resume our efforts to address his contract situation following the 2017 season."
Bell entered the offseason with leverage to easily surpass LeSean McCoy's five-year, $40-million deal and become the tailback cash king. The hefty franchise tag, Bell's historic production and his 16 missed games for suspensions or injuries over the past three years gave both sides much to sort out this summer.
Both sides remained quiet about the negotiations. Bell stayed away from offseason workouts while recovering from groin surgery. Early in the offseason, Colbert and team president Art Rooney II made clear publicly that Bell was a part of the long-term plans. Bell started 2015 and 2016 on the NFL's suspended list for violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Knee injuries kept him out of the playoffs after the 2014 regular season and sidelined for 10 total games in 2015, including two playoff games. In last season's AFC title game against New England, Bell reaggravated a groin injury that kept him off the field for most of the 36-17 loss.
When Bell is on the field, he is brilliant. Bell's 157 total yards per game last season ranks third all time for a running back. Bell set the Steelers' regular-season rushing record for a single game with 236 yards on 38 carries in Buffalo in Week 14. Weeks later, Bell did it again -- twice -- with back-to-back franchise records for a single playoff game, breaking off 167 yards against Miami and 170 yards against Kansas City.
In both cases, Bell surpassed Hall of Famer Franco Harris.
NFL Network ranked Bell the No. 9 overall player in its 2017 rankings, in part for his elite receiving ability with 227 career catches. Bell's patient, pause-at-the-line running style has become his trademark and has caught the attention of many tailback peers around the league. The Steelers locker room named Bell their 2016 MVP.
"It is fun to sit and watch and just see what [Bell] is going to do because he is incredibly talented," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last season.
The Steelers entered July with around $16.1 million in salary-cap space, according to NFL Players Association records. The Steelers reserved that space for potential contract extensions with Bell, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Bell might have avoided the tag and received a contract extension last summer, but the second suspension slowed any progress. Bell said at the time that he'd rather focus on his knee rehab than a new deal.