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Le’Veon Bell will become a free agent after Steelers decline to tag him

This Steelers fan apparently will get his wish, as Le'Veon Bell's time in Pittsburgh appears to be over. (AP Photo/Don Wright, File)

Entering the NFL’s franchise-tag period, which began Tuesday, there was talk that the Pittsburgh Steelers might use the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell, which would have given the running back — who sat out the 2018 season after the Steelers used their franchise tag on him for the second straight season — the chance to negotiate with other teams and Pittsburgh the right to match any offer he might receive.

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But Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert ended that speculation Wednesday, saying the team would not go that route. Bell, now an unrestricted free agent, can sign with any team that wants him starting March 13.

“Le’Veon is still a great player. We can’t afford to use any other type of tags. Le’Veon will be an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year,” Colbert said, via ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

Bell was unhappy that the Steelers again used the exclusive franchise tag on him before last season, which kept the five-year veteran from negotiating a free agent contract — and the large guaranteed payday that would come with it — with another team. After Bell and Pittsburgh could not come to terms on a new contract that would have kept him with the Steelers, he refused to participate in training camp and then did not sign his franchise-tag tender, his season officially ending in mid-November.

Without Bell in 2018, the Steelers leaned on second-year running back James Conner, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry, scored 12 rushing touchdowns and added 38.2 receiving yards per game. In Bell’s final season with Pittsburgh, he averaged 4.0 yards per rush, scored nine rushing touchdowns and averaged 43.7 receiving yards per game. Without Bell, the Steelers saved around $14 million on their salary cap, which they can roll over into 2019, and when he departs via free agency, they’ll also receive a 2020 compensatory draft pick that could be worth as high as a third-round selection, according to Fowler.

Bell, who turned 27 Monday, is likely to be the most coveted offensive player on the free agent market this offseason, though it remains to be seen what kind of market develops for a running back who already has seen heavy usage over his short NFL career: Only LeSean McCoy had more touches than Bell’s 1,541 from 2013 to 2017, and the latter put up that total in 13 fewer games because of suspensions and injuries.

And indeed, with a free agent contract on the line, Bell refused to play in 2018 in the name of self-preservation.

“I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs. But I’ve got to take this stand,” he told Fowler in October. “Knowing my worth and 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.”

On the subject of a different disgruntled Steeler, Colbert said Wednesday that Pittsburgh will not be offering any discount to any team that wants to trade for wide receiver Antonio Brown, who met with team owner Art Rooney II on Tuesday and then announced that both sides had decided to move on. Colbert added that the Steelers would not be releasing Brown, either.

“We’re all disappointed we’re at this point. How things transpired, we’re all disappointed,” Colbert said. “Respectfully, we did agree to look into a trade would probably be the best course of action for both sides. . . . By no means are we going to make a trade or any type of move that will not be beneficial to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. We will not be discounting you on the trade market and we will not release you.”

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