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Le’Veon Bell can stay away through Week 10

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James Conner must take advantage of a big opportunity in Week 1 with Le'Veon Bell's absence against the Browns growing more and more likely.

For players under contract who hold out into the regular season (none will in 2018), the deadline for showing up and getting credit for the contract year isn’t entirely clear. For franchise-tagged players who have not yet signed their tenders, the labor deal is a clear as it can be.

And so, as Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell closes in on possibly skipping regular-season games and the $855,000 checks that go along with them, he can do that for 10 total weeks and still become eligible for free agency in 2019. Article 10, Section 15(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement articulates the deadline: The window on Bell playing in 2018 closes at 4:00 p.m. ET, on the Tuesday after Week 10.

If he signs his franchise tender before then, he’ll be free in 2019 (unless the Steelers sign him to a long-term deal after the season or apply the franchise tag for a third time, which becomes the quarterback tender by rule). After that, he can’t play at all in 2018, and the Steelers can tag him in 2019 at $14.54 million.

Bell would lose $8.55 million by staying away that long, and then the question would be whether he’d play well enough (and be healthy enough) to be a hot commodity on the open market. Which then raises the question of whether Bell would consider skipping the year, daring the Steelers to tag him again.

It’s not an easy riddle to solve, especially with Bell’s agent sending mixed signals about hoping to prevent the Steelers from treating Bell like a rental car with unlimited free collision coverage and Bell wanting to have the best statistical season of his career.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that something has happened since Bell’s agent said in July that Bell would follow the same plan that he deployed a year ago, showing up on Labor Day and playing in the first game of the regular season. Maybe Bell was influenced by all the money that was paid out in the past week, to players like Odell Beckham, Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Donald, and Khalil Mack. Bell belongs in that group from an ability standpoint, so he surely believes he belongs in that group from a compensation standpoint.