Le’Veon Bell may not show up for the Pittsburg Steelers at all this year

After spending the past few months in Miami, it appears that Le’Veon Bell has finally made his way back to Pittsburgh. However, the drama between Bell and the Steelers isn’t quite over yet, and that’s because he still hasn’t reported to the team.

We know Bell’s in Pittsburgh because he was spotted on Tuesday night at a local LA Fitness. An eagle-eyed customer at the gym saw Bell playing basketball and decided to take a picture, and then obviously, he posted that picture to social media.

Although there was some question about whether or not the pictures actually showed Bell (they are a little blurry and/or theoretically could be old), that was all cleared up on Wednesday when an LA Fitness manager confirmed to ESPN.com that Bell was at the gym. The gym photos came just one day after Bell started an internet firestorm when he sent out a cryptic tweet that most took as a message that he was finally going to report to the Steelers.

It’s a good thing Le’Veon Bell is in Pittsburgh, because if he wants to play this year, he has to show up soon. To be eligible to play in the NFL in 2018, he has to report to the team by 4 p.m. ET on Nov. 13, which is less than one week away. After reporting, Bell would then sign his franchise tender. Although the franchise tag would have paid him $14.55 million this season, he’ll only get roughly $5.9 million of that after missing the first 10 weeks of the season.

The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is a complicated animal, and apparently even Le’Veon Bell is still learning the ins and outs of it. According to one report, a new piece of information the star running back learned about his own situation this week has him contemplating not reporting to the Pittsburgh Steelers at all in 2018.

A source told Mark Kaboly of The Athletic that Le’Veon Bell is not a lock to sign his franchise tender prior to the Nov. 13 deadline after he learned that it would still be considered the third time the Steelers use the franchise tag on him if they choose to go that route again this offseason. Teams can use the franchise tag on players up to three times, and it has been widely reported that this year will only count as one of those three if Bell reports and signs the tender.

Pro Football Talk has been reporting that the Steelers could franchise tag Le’Veon Bell again this offseason for the second time if he doesn’t report by Nov. 13 at the same salary number of around $14.5 million, as the 2018 franchise tag would not count as one of the three the team can use on Bell. That makes sense and would seemingly be the player’s only incentive to show up, but there is now some disagreement about whether that is actually the case.

According to Kaboly’s source, a franchise tag for Bell this offseason would be considered the third whether the running back reports by the Nov. 13 deadline or not. The salary of the third franchise tag is determined by the average of the top five highest-paid players in the NFL (not just top five running backs), which would be around $25 million for 2019. That is why teams never franchise tag a player for a third consecutive year.

Apparently Bell was previously unaware that he could not report in 2018 and still have the franchise tag count as his second tag out of three. The Steelers aren’t going to pay him $25 million, which means their only option in 2019 would be using the transition tag. That gives Bell the ability to negotiate with other teams and the Steelers the right to match, which would essentially be the same as him hitting the free agent market.

Kaboly’s report goes on to say that Bell was hinting at a return to Pittsburgh with his cryptic tweet earlier this week, but he learned he has more leverage than he initially thought. Of course, it’s also possible that the language in the CBA is not clear enough for this specific situation, which could result in a legal battle between Bell and the Steelers. Stay tuned.

If, for some reason, Bell doesn’t report to the Steelers, he’ll be very unlikely to get another franchise tag. According to NFL.com, if Bell gets hit with the franchise tag in 2019, it will count as his third tag whether he plays this season or not. With a third franchise tag, that means Bell would be paid the amount of the highest tag, which would be the quarterback tag. In that case, any team that franchise tagged him would owe him more than $25 million.

Nicholas Norman is the founder of Distinct Athlete and one of the preeminent figures in the digital sports industry. Using his extensive background in sports media, he has built Distinct Athlete into one of the largest, most successful independently-owned sports blogs in the country. Nicholas Norman has worked in sports media for over 8 years, beginning with his time as a student at Troy University. His background includes six years working at the Forward Times Newspaper. Nicholas Norman founded DistinctAthlete.com in Jan. 2012.