Le'Veon won't play for Steelers this year, declines to sign franchise tag

PITTSBURGH – For all intents and purposes, the Le’Veon Bell era in Pittsburgh appears to have ended.

In a move that will likely propel the Steelers running back into free agency in the offseason, Bell won’t 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 won’t be 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.

“I understand that business is an element of this,” Tomlin said.

Take a look at Le'Veon Bell's career: 

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Le'Veon Bell through his career
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Le'Veon Bell through his career
ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 09: Le'Veon Bell #24 of the Michigan State Spartans scores on a 41 yard touchdown in the second quarter during the game aginst the Michigan Wolverines during the game on October 9, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 03: Le'Veon Bell #24 of the Michigan State Spartans runs the ball in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the Big 10 Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 24: Le'Veon Bell of Michigan State runs the 40-yard dash during the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 24, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Leveon Bell attends the 10th Annual ESPN The Magazine Pre-Draft Party at The IAC Building on April 24, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 10: Injured running back Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on from the sideline during a preseason game against the New York Giants at Heinz Field on August 10, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Giants defeated the Steelers 18-13. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers is tackled by Kyle Wilson, New York Jets, during the New York Jets V Pittsburgh Steelers NFL regular season game at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, USA. 13th October 2013. Photo Tim Clayton (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 22: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on December 22, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Steelers defeated the Packers 38-31. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 05: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs for yardage during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on October 5, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 30: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes against the New Orleans Saints during the game on November 30, 2014 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 30: Ben Roethlisberger #7 hands the ball off to Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field on November 30, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 14: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs off the field after the game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on December 14, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 03: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches the game from the sideline in the first quarter against the Carolina Panthers during the preseason game at Heinz Field on September 3, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
October 25, 2015: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) during the NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 26: DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Le'Veon Bell #26 talk before a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 16: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on before a NFL game against the Miami Dolphins on October 16, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 13: Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Le'Veon Bell (26) stretches out to score a touchdown during the NFL Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 13, 2016, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The Cowboys defeated the Steelers with a final score of 35-30. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before a game against the New York Giants on December 4, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) looks on after a NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens on December 25, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The Steelers went on to win 31-27, advancing to the playoffs as the AFC's No. 3 seed. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs out to the field after being introduced during a NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens on December 25, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The Steelers went on to win 31-27, advancing to the playoffs as the AFC's No. 3 seed. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MP - JANUARY 15: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tosses the ball forward after gaining a first down against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 10, 2017: Running back LeVeon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers laughs as he plays catch with fans prior to a game on September 10, 2017 against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Pittsburgh won 21-18. (Photo by: 2017 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 24: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on September 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears won 23-17 in overtime. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 01: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Michigan USA, on Sunday, October 29, 2017. (Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 12: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) watches a video replay during the NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts on November 12, 2017, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 10: Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Le'Veon Bell (26) walks in before the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 10, 2017 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 10: Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Le'Veon Bell (26) looks on during the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 10, 2017 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 14: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball during the AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 14, 2018 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 14: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field on January 14, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 28: Runningback Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the AFC Team as he arrives to the NFL Pro Bowl Game at Camping World Stadium on January 28, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
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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 head coach Mike 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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