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The Le’Veon Bell Saga: Separating fact from fiction

The notion that Bell must play in six games is widespread, but mistaken.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

With the report by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler suggesting Le’Veon Bell was going to report the Steelers during the bye-week, and then the subsequent report from Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the team doesn’t expect Bell to report this week, there are a lot of facts and figures floating around. It has taken the national media weeks to finally get some of the information correct (many were reporting the Steelers should give Bell a new contract, which they cannot).

Let’s take some time to separate fact from fiction as it pertains to the Steelers and how the Bell situation plays out.

How much money is Bell losing each week and what happens to the money?

The NFL pays out its contracts over the 17-week season, which includes the teams bye-week. With every week Bell doesn’t report, he forfeits 1/17 of his salary which is approximately $855,530. All money not paid to Bell goes back into the team’s availability total under the salary cap. According to the collective bargaining agreement, teams have the option of rolling over unused salary cap to the next season.

Does Bell have to play in six games to have an accrued NFL season?

No. Le’Veon Bell must be on one of the following: the 53-man roster, the PUP list, or IR for six games to get an accrued season. But most people don’t realize that getting the accrued season doesn’t matter in this case. According to Joel Corry of CBS Sports, Bell doesn’t need an accrued season to be a free agent in 2019 because he’s a vested veteran. All Le’Veon Bell has to do is sign his 2018 contract and he’ll be eligible for free agency in 2019. If and when Bell signs his contract for 2018, however, does affect what the Steelers can do for 2019, which we will in other questions.

Is there a hard deadline by which Le’Veon Bell must report in 2018?

Yes. Any player who doesn’t sign their franchise tag by 4 PM on the Tuesday after Week 10 will not be permitted to play that season. For 2018, the last date to sign is November 13. There are several different types of contracts which also must be signed by this deadline — draft picks, transition tags, and restricted free agents to name a few.

Can Le’Veon Bell be traded?

Not until he signs his contract. Reports of the Steelers being interested in trading Bell might be the reason why he might hold out until after the October 30 trading deadline.

What happens if Bell doesn’t report in 2018?

The Steelers would have exactly the same options with Bell for 2019 as they did in 2018. To clarify, because the numbers dealing with both the franchise tag and transition tag are based on the player’s previous salary, those numbers would be identical because Bell’s previous salary would have been in 2017. The Steelers could allow Bell to leave in free agency, use the exclusive or non-exclusive franchise tag, the transition tag, or sign a long-term deal.

**EDIT: Since this article was published, Joel Corry of CBS Sports has clarified a misconception he originally reported. After confirming with the CBA (Article 10, Section 15 Item c), if Bell does not sign his tender this season there will be some changes to the Steelers options for 2019. Even though he never played under the second franchise tag, it will still be considered a third franchise tag if the Steelers choose to use it. Since it is the third tag for Le’Veon Bell, it can only be the exclusive tag and he would be eligible for the QB tag amount of over $20 million. If the Steelers use the transition tag, it will be the same as 2018 pending litigation if necessary.**

How does a roster exemption work?

Much like they did last year, if Bell does report to the Steelers, they can request a roster exemption for up to two weeks. During this time, Bell wouldn’t count towards the 53-man roster and therefore would not be available to play in any games. The upside of the exemption is the Steelers wouldn’t have to release another player right away. Whether or not Bell would be paid during this time would have to be negotiated upon signing his contract.

What is up for negotiation with Bell’s contract at this time?

Not much. In theory the Steelers could pay Bell more money than the franchise tag amount, but there is no incentive for them to do so. Bell could ask for back pay where he did not report, or to be paid during the time of the roster-exemption period, but the Steelers would not be obligated to comply. And any contract that would be worked out can only be for the 2018 season.

If Bell reports some time before Week 11, what are the Steelers’ options for next season?

Before addressing this question, I must say Le’Veon Bell will most likely appeal any action that refers to his contract as what he was paid in 2018. Meaning Bell will argue all figures for 2019 should be based off of the franchise tag amount for the season of 2018 and not the salary he collected. The Steelers will take the stance that all numbers are based on the money Bell was paid in 2018.

To use the franchise tag a third time, Bell’s salary would either be 144% of the previous tag, or the highest possible franchise tag available which would be the tag for a quarterback. In 2018, the quarterback franchise tag was more than $23 million.

It has been reported the Steelers informed Bell this past off-season they would use the transition tag on him in 2019. The transition tag allows the Steelers the right to match any contract the player would go out and get with another team. If the Steelers do not match the contract, they would receive no compensation for losing Bell. If the player didn’t get any other contract offers, the Steelers would have a one-year deal worth 120% of the player’s previous salary or the average of the 10 highest played players at that position, whichever number is higher. The transition tag for running backs in 2018 was $9.647 million. In order to exceed that number, which will probably go up in 2019, Bell would have to receive 10 paychecks for the year. If Bell would win the appeal where the transition tag would be based on his entire 2018 franchise-tag amount, the transition tag would cost the Steelers almost $17.5 million.

Is there any incentive for the Steelers to pull the franchise tag?

Very little. The Steelers would have all the money towards the salary cap from Bell’s 2018 contract. Le’Veon would then be free to sign with any team for any amount for any contract length. Additionally, the Steelers would receive no compensatory consideration from losing Bell. Other than the cap space, the only other positive from pulling the tag would be not having the distraction in the locker room.

Now what?

I know many Steelers fans are tired of hearing about Le’Veon Bell. So am I. It seems like I can’t go anywhere wearing Steelers gear without being asked about the situation. I know I mentioned last week how it was interesting whether Bell might be waiting until after playing the Bengals to possibly report. After watching the game and the antics of Vontaze Burfict, it was valid point of discussion.

But at this point, I really don’t care what happens with Bell. The only reason for addressing these questions is to make sure the information about the subject is accurate. Otherwise, I’m ready to get focused on the next 10 games and a post-season run.