Le’Veon Bell is staying away, so the Pittsburgh Steelers are moving forward with James Conner for Week 1.
Now five days before their season starts, the Pittsburgh Steelers still haven’t seen Le’Veon Bell. Center Maurkice Pouncey has suggested Wednesday will be the day Bell reports and signs his franchise tender, but head coach Mike Tomlin was indifferent to that possibility.
Bell showed up on Labor Day last year, then had a limited role in Week 1 (10 carries for 32 yards, three catches for 15 yards). Pittsburgh takes on the Cleveland Browns in the season opener again this year, and if Bell does report Wednesday his practice time will be even more limited than it was at this time last year.
On that note, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered an observation (however obvious) the Steelers are preparing to start James Conner in Bell’s place on Sunday.
Conner saw little action last year as a rookie, with 32 carries for 144 yards in 14 games before a torn MCL ended his season. But he got some props for his work during the offseason, advancing the idea he could eventually replace Bell as the Steelers’ lead back.
The Steelers hold a big, unlikely card, as they could rescind the franchise tag on Bell and make him available as an unrestricted free agent. They could also get a two-week roster exemption on him, and avoid paying him for the first two weeks of the season.
Teams like to let things out via the media to advance an agenda. On Monday Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert expressed disappointment that Bell hasn’t reported,. Then on Tuesday, a respected team beat writer makes an observation about Conner being in line to start. That’s not to say Bouchette is a team mouthpiece, but logic and observing practice led to him putting his assessment out there.
The Steelers may be sending a message to Bell, even if they have little choice but to move toward Week 1 as if he won’t be around. But if Conner shines in a bigger role against the Browns on Sunday, Bell is taking a big risk by staying away deep into the practice week and inviting the idea he can actually be replaced.