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Tim Benz: If Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell reports during bye week, then what?

October 3, 2018

Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell carries for a touchdown during the first quarter against the Ravens Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, at Heinz Field.

In predictable Le’Veon Bell fashion, the latest twist in his franchise tag melodrama is a complete contradiction.

What else could we expect from someone who portrays himself as a “target” one day and a “bad guy” the next?

A guy who usually is friendly and pleasant to engage in real life, but a complete jerk on social media and in contract negotiations?

A player who works his tail off in practice and in games, but is willing to squander much of a season in the prime of his career?

Follow me if you can on this. Good luck. Because I’m having trouble writing it.

ESPN is now reporting that the All-Pro running back will sign his franchise tag with the Steelers after the club’s sixth game. That’ll be following a contest against the Bengals and leading into a bye week prior to a rematch against the Browns on Oct. 28 at Heinz Field.

Curiously, this story moved less than 24 hours after Bell showed support on social media for Earl Thomas. He’s the Seattle safety who broke his leg Sunday. Thomas then proceeded to flip his middle finger at his own bench while being carted off the field. Like Bell, Thomas has been embroiled in a public contract dispute and has stayed away from practices out of fear that he would get hurt before free agency.

Bell said he’d continue “being the ‘bad guy’ for ALL” of the players in an ESPN post about the story. The suggestion there being that he’d sacrifice his reputation and continue staying away from playing in the effort to protect a huge contract that would raise the guaranteed money of all players, especially running backs.

Now, less than a day later, Bell is telling the world he plans to report under the terms of the franchise tag he has battled for months.

Typical.

So what’s Bell’s play here? Why now? In the immediate wake of Thomas’ broken leg -- which is a perfect example of why Bell could make a case for staying away because of injury risk -- why is he stating plans to return?

The timing seems illogical. If Bell wants to report and play with minimal amount of risk, while still qualifying as a “full” NFL season, then he can wait a few more weeks.

He doesn’t have to sign until six games remain in the Steelers’ season. Or, if he wants to avoid flirting with the organization’s right to use the two-week exempt list, then prior to the game against Carolina the week of Nov. 8.

Either way, suddenly Bell is advancing the calendar. How come?

“Knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches,” Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

Well, that makes no sense since Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari, have (for months) promoted Bell’s durability as a selling point as to why he should get more money than what is owed to him under the franchise tag.

Furthermore, as the Thomas injury proves -- and as Bell has experienced himself -- injury isn’t always about wear-and-tear or erosion because of a high volume of touches. He’s had two spontaneous knee injuries thanks to individual hits -- one from Reggie Nelson and another from Vontaze Burfict -- that have instantly ended seasons.

So why say that you want to sign your tag now and play more games than the minimum required to assume the risk of injury you have acutely attempted to avoid until this point in 2018?

In the ESPN story, Bell says he just misses football and would like to figure out a way to stay in Pittsburgh until he retires.

I’ll give you a moment to contain your laughter.

The more likely truth is that he needs cash and wants some paychecks. Or, perhaps, a trade is in the works. Bell needs to sign that tag before a deal is allowed. And the NFL trade deadline is Oct. 30.

If the Steelers have found a suitable trade partner, that business angle has to be cleared up first. If Bakari deems that partner a realistic long-term destination for Bell after 2018, he may encourage Bell to sign the tag to facilitate a trade, even if Bell technically can’t sign an extension during the year.

I’m going to assume both of those angles are accurate: Bell is running out of cash and a favorable trade may happen.

What I don’t assume is Bell’s level of sincerity about wanting to come back and play. Nor do I presume truth in his claims that he is in great shape and will be ready to play soon.

And, given the fact that we are talking about Le’Veon Bell here, I definitely don’t assume that anything you have just read will still be valid 12 hours from now.

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