Le'Veon Bell's 2018 season is over before it started.
The Pittsburgh Steelers confirmed that Bell, who had been given the franchise tag this past offseason, did not report to the team by the 4 p.m. deadline on Tuesday, which will prevent him from playing for the team — or any team — this season.
"I want to confirm that Le’Veon Bell did not sign his Franchise Tender today and, as a result, he will not be eligible to play football during the 2018 season," Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said in a statement shortly after the deadline.
The 26-year-old back remains in Pittsburgh for now after spending the past few months during the season in Miami, but he and the Steelers clearly couldn't find common ground on him rejoining the team. And by doing so, Bell left $14.5 million on the table — or at least a prorated portion of that — for this season.
Bell clearly believes he can make some (or all?) of that up in free agency elsewhere next year. Whether the Steelers can shackle him further and get extra compensation for his rights remains a bit unclear. But it certainly feels like his days as a Steeler have ended.
The team is hot right now without him, having won five straight behind the running of James Conner and not missing Bell's playmaking ability. Conner is third in the NFL in rushing yards with 771 and in rushing touchdowns with 10.
Whether Conner, who is currently in concussion protocol, can keep up this pace and stay healthy is another matter, but the Steelers' offense has been terrific without their former franchise back. Asked his thoughts on what might happen if Bell were never to return to the team, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday afternoon, "So be it."
Bell skipped training camp in 2017 and reported Sept. 1 to sign his $12.1 million franchise tag that season. And after turning down a reported five-year, $70 million offer from the Steelers — citing a guaranteed portion as being too low — Bell has remained away from the team and unsigned.
A third franchise tag next season would come at quarterback money, more than $25 million in 2019, so how the Steelers handle his exodus will be fascinating to see. The transition tag, which would allow the team to match any potential offer, might be the play there.
If the Steelers are to go on to win the Super Bowl, they'll be doing it without a back who averaged 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game over his first five seasons. But Conner has virtually matched that production this season at 128.6 yards per game, and the Steelers clearly hope he can do now what Bell will not be able to.