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PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell says he and the Pittsburgh Steelers are closer in negotiations than they were a year ago. It’s time to find out just how close.

The franchise tag window is here, and if the Steelers use the tag as expected, Bell and the team have the next five months to work out a contract.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s next:

Where things stand: Both sides have expressed optimism over a long-term deal. Negotiations still are in the early stages, but they could take flight at the NFL combine next week.

Why the Steelers likely will tag Bell: Because they are prepared to use it. They’ve budgeted for it. And because they’d be crazy to let one of their most productive players hit free agency during a crucial Super Bowl window. If no deal is reached by early March, the Steelers can apply the tag to give themselves more options — they can keep Bell as another one-year rental or continue to negotiate. The $14.5 million tag gives Bell leverage, but the Steelers can use it as a way to test Bell’s retirement claims.

Why the Steelers might try to avoid the tag altogether: General manager Kevin Colbert has said the team would prefer a long-term deal above all else. Basically, they’d rather avoid a repeat of last year, when Bell missed training camp as a result of the failure to reach an extension by the mid-July deadline. It’s cleaner this way. They have an idea of what Bell wants. If they can meet halfway, perhaps they find a sweet spot this month.

Why the Steelers appear all-in on Bell: The game’s most versatile back averages 129 yards from scrimmage per game, the highest clip over a player’s first five seasons since the NFL merger in 1970. He’s a unicorn back. He does things that you can’t duplicate in the draft. He’s an elite receiver for his position (or any position), he’s an excellent pass-blocker, he can control the pace of the game with his runs and Ben Roethlisberger is at his best when Bell is heavily involved in the game plan. And he just turned 26. The body should have at least a few good years left.

What could hold up a deal: Standard guarantees. This will be crucial to Bell, who knows the per-year payouts to big contracts only tell part of the story. For example, if a team signs a player to a five-year, $50 million deal, the guaranteed money usually dries up by year two, leaving years 3-5 as option, pay-as-you-perform propositions. The Steelers typically guarantee only the signing bonus, then it’s up to the player to keep performing. That said, they sign players with the intention of seeing them through the contract, which isn’t the standard for all teams.

Why the Steelers might be concerned: Bell’s longest run last season was 27 yards. Even Bell lamented frequent no-gain runs around the midseason point. Is his 4.0 yards per carry a byproduct of 1,541 career touches? It’s worth noting that Bell missing camp clearly affected him the first three weeks of the season, and the Steelers’ offensive line, though good, wasn’t as dominant as the previous year.

Why Bell won’t blink: Bell has made clear multiple times he considers himself a standard-bearer for a sagging running back market. He considers getting top dollar for his position his personal mission. He’s never had major money in his life until now, he says, so he plans to do this right and capitalize on his position of power. Plus, he knows what the Steelers know — they can get out of just about any deal after two years with minimal cap impact. That might involve absorbing some dead money, but shedding a large cap number would offset that problem.

Why the Steelers won’t blink: Teams usually win standoffs with running backs, and the Steelers are among the hardest bargainers. The team can offer the tag or their final long-term proposal and if Bell doesn’t take it, they throw the ball 50 times a game and toss James Conner out there. That’s not ideal, but it’s an option if they feel Bell’s price won’t fall to them.

How the Steelers can pull this off: Make what seems like a megadeal — say, $68 million over five years — manageable. Go big on the signing bonus, which prorates over the course of the deal, and bloat the fourth and fifth years as escape clauses.

A quote to remember: “The least amount of change, the better. That goes for players, coaches and everything; we don’t want big changes. We’re right there. We’re on the cusp [of a championship].” — Ben Roethlisberger to 93.7 the Fan on Jan. 16.

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Lions releasing running back Kerryon Johnson, per reports

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The Detroit Lions are releasing running back Kerryon Johnson, according to multiple reports.

Detroit drafted the former Auburn standout in the second round in 2018. Johnson became expendable after the team drafted D’Andre Swift No. 35 overall in 2020, signed free agent running back Jamaal Williams in March and drafted Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson last week.

Johnson ran for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns over three seasons. He also has 61 career receptions for 527 yards and three scores.

Last year, he had 181 yards rushing and two scores on 52 carries. and had 19 receptions for 187 yards receiving and a touchdown.

NFL Network first reported that Johnson would be waived.

The Lions also added a player in free agency, signing tight end Darren Fells on Wednesday. The move gives the team a veteran at the position it can put on the field with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.

The 35-year-old Fells has 123 career catches with 1,483 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns. The previous two years in Houston, he had a combined 55 catches for 653 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Fells has started 76 games — including 13 with the Lions in 2017 — and played in 102 games with Arizona, Detroit, Cleveland and the Texans. He was a rebounding standout at UC Irvine and played basketball in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France before playing in the NFL.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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QB Blaine Gabbert re-signing with Tampa Bay Buccaneers on 1-year, $2.5 million deal, source says

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TAMPA, Fla. — Once again, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians has kept his word.

Days after saying the Bucs would work to re-sign Tom Brady’s top backup, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the team is indeed re-signing Gabbert to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

Gabbert, who has played in 60 career games with 48 starts, previously earned $1.187 million in 2020 and $1.6 million in 2019.

Last season, Gabbert, 31, completed 9 of 16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, with all but one of those pass attempts coming in the second half against the Detroit Lions in Week 16, when Arians opted to rest Brady.

The Bucs selected quarterback Kyle Trask in the second round of the NFL draft last week, but Arians said that would not preclude them from re-signing Gabbert. The team also re-signed Ryan Griffin, who was last year’s third-string backup, earlier this offseason.

Gabbert enters his third season with the Bucs, after spending 2018 with the Tennessee Titans, 2017 with Arians and the Arizona Cardinals, 2014-16 with the San Francisco 49ers and 2011-13 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Gabbert has had an eventful offseason. In addition to attending the Kentucky Derby with Brady and Griffin on Saturday, he married longtime sweetheart Bekah Mills in Paradise Valley, Arizona, in March.

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NFL sends memo reminding clubs the league will not pay players who suffer injuries away from facilities

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The NFL reminded teams Wednesday that they are not obligated to pay players who suffer an injury away from the team facility, an issue that moved this week to the center of an ongoing dispute between the NFL and NFL Players Association over in-person participation in offseason workouts.

The memo, obtained by ESPN, was prompted by several prominent players who were surprised by media reports about Denver Broncos offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, who tore an Achilles tendon this week while working out on his own and could miss the 2021 season. NFL contracts have long classified such injuries as “non-football,” because they happen away from the team environment, and they are not covered by typical injury guarantees. As a result, the Broncos could withhold James’ salary for as long as he is sidelined. More than $10 million would have been guaranteed if the injury had occurred at the Broncos’ facility.

The NFL has noted this contractual leverage multiple times during negotiations with the NFLPA, which has advised players to skip the voluntary portion of in-person offseason training unless they stand to lose workout bonuses.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was among those who seemed unaware of the full implications of “non-football’ injuries in comments this week on social media.

“According to the media coverage,” the NFL wrote in its memo, “several players have expressed surprise that Mr. James’ injury was not covered by his Injury Guarantee, although this point has been made frequently in our discussions with the NFLPA about the offseason program. Clubs are encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train in non-NFL locations.”



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