No deal, Le’Veon Bell and Steelers prepare for 16 confrontation

PITTSBURGH — Now the fun begins.

One of the most prolific players in the NFL will play on a one-year contract for a Super Bowl contender after the franchise tag deadline passed Monday.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had hoped that wouldn’t be Le’Veon Bell’s reality. For months, they’ve wanted to sign him to a long-term deal. But Bell was toting the $12.1 million rock, thanks to this year’s franchise tag. He wasn’t going to undermine his own leverage. So now he’s betting on himself with a one-year audition, just like his old Michigan State teammate Kirk Cousins.

Le'Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag at $12.1 million.

Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag at $12.1 million.

oth sides are squaring up for an even bigger stare-down next offseason, assuming Bell continues to pump MVP numbers into the Steelers’ offense.

That both sides are here is surprising. Bell was clearly the team’s best player last year after averaging 157 yards per game. Despite his history of injuries and suspensions, many around the league figured a deal of around $10 million per year would get this done.

This is a win-lose situation for Bell.

The loss: The volatility of the running back market forces Bell to add one more year of heavy workload, plus he already has proved what he can do. What more is there to prove, besides staying healthy?

The win: The 2018 franchise tag is around $14.5 million. If he’s indispensable next year — and he undoubtedly was last season — the Steelers might owe close to $27 million in franchise money over two seasons.

“We will resume our efforts to address his contract situation following the 2017 season,” general manager Kevin Colbert said.

Since he hasn’t signed his franchise tender yet, Bell can nudge the Steelers by showing up late to camp. He’s not required to be there by Day 1. The Steelers are known for acting in good faith — both parties prevented media leaks during this negotiation — so perhaps Bell reporting on July 27 would build goodwill for a future deal.

Technically, though, he can stay away until Dec. 1. Bell already has said publicly that he has no problems playing with the tag.

In other words, there’s still a chance — possibly a good chance — Bell finishes his career in Pittsburgh as he wishes. He turned 25 in February, and his production is insane. Bell amassed nearly 4,800 yards over the past three seasons, second among running backs — despite missing 13 regular-season games during that span. He’d potentially be at 6,000-plus on a full slate.

If his injury issues finally dissipate, he’ll be even more lethal. His receiving skills should prolong his career.

But the Steelers put a value on Bell based on several factors, and they weren’t going to be muscled into the stratosphere of $12 million to $15 million per year. Both sides must navigate a monetary sweet spot.

The next 16 games will determine whether this can work out for everyone — depending on how much money is left. The Steelers can use their $16 million in remaining cap space on defensive end Stephon Tuitt or left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.