No long-term contract will be forthcoming for Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell this season.
The 4 p.m. Monday deadline for franchise tagged players to negotiate contracts came and went without a deal for Bell, meaning he will play the 2017 season under the $12.12 million tender.
According to the NFL collective bargaining agreement, Bell and the Steelers can't try to negotiate a long-term contract until the conclusion of the season. The Steelers also could keep Bell away from free agency by using the franchise tag again next offseason, which would give the Pro Bowl running back an approximate $14.5 million salary for 2018.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to agree to terms on a long-term contract with Le'Veon Bell prior to today's deadline,” Steelers 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.”
The next decision for Bell is when he will sign the $12.12 million tender. He could choose to hold out in training camp and sign the tender before the start of the season. If Bell does report to training camp July 27 at St. Vincent College, he would sign the tender as insurance against a possible injury.
Bell's salary this season makes him the NFL's highest-paid running back, and he'll get $4 million more than the next highest-paid back, Buffalo's Le'Sean McCoy, who is in the middle of a five-year, $40.05 million deal. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin is the only other NFL running back making at least $7 million per season.
Steelers president Art Rooney II and Colbert each said during the winter that signing Bell long-term was an offseason goal. The two sides had almost five months to hammer out a deal after applying the franchise tag to Bell on Feb. 27.
With Bell's situation clarified, the Steelers will shift attention to offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, who hasn't signed his exclusive rights free agent tender and is a candidate for a long-term deal. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier also could receive contract extensions before the start of the regular season.
Bell rushed for 1,268 yards and had another 616 yards on 75 receptions in 2016 despite playing only 12 games. He was suspended for the first three games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and he did not suit up for the meaningless regular-season finale.
In the playoffs, Bell set a franchise single-game rushing record with 167 yards against Miami only to top it the following week with 170 yards rushing against Kansas City. But in the AFC championship game at New England, Bell injured his groin early in the game and was limited to six touches for 20 yards. He did not play after early in the second quarter, and the Steelers lost to the Patriots, 36-17, ending a nine-game winning streak.
Bell had surgery to repair the groin injury in the offseason, but in recent weeks posted a video on social media showing off his basketball skills. He did not participate in the voluntary organized team activities or the mandatory minicamp, although he was exempt from minicamp since he was not under contract.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.