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Drama tends to find the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it didn’t take long to permeate their locker room this season.

Players have been awaiting the return of all-pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who skipped offseason activities for the second straight year amid failed contract talks, for months. But Bell, who’d hinted on social media this summer that he would report this week – he showed up days before the opener last year – still hasn’t appeared or signed his franchise tag. Not only is he on the verge of sacrificing paychecks, but he’s starting to lose the goodwill of his teammates, too.

“What do you do? Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn,” guard Ramon Foster said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I just hate it came to this.

“He’s making seven times what I make twice as much as (left tackle) Al (Villanueva) is making and we’re the guys who do it for him.”

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Bell is scheduled to earn $14.54 million this season, the second in a row that he’s set to play under the franchise tag, which offers lucrative paydays but only a year’s worth of job security. Bell and the team have failed the past two summers to reach a long-term agreement, and all signs point to him finally hitting the open market in 2019.

Yet if what now appears an inevitable divorce is looming, there seems to be concern in Bell’s camp that the Steelers have no incentive to safeguard the well being of a guy who plays, arguably, the league’s most punishing position. Bell led the NFL with 321 carries and 406 touches in 2017. A similar (or heavier) load could compromise the earning power of a player set to enter his sixth season. Bell already carries a bit of a cloud due to multiple drug suspensions in his past.

“What would the goal – you’re (GM) Kevin Colbert, you’re (head coach) Mike Tomlin – and you possibly have a once-in-a-generation player for one more season, what would your plan be? What would you do with that hypothetical player?” Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, asked Wednesday during an interview with SiriusXM.

“I think you can read in between those lines.”

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported Bell is not likely to play in Sunday’s opener against the Cleveland Browns.

Bell must report by Week 10 to accrue the season of service he will need to be eligible for free agency next year.

After he and the team were unable to bridge their financial gap by July’s deadline, Bell wrote to fans on Twitter: “I’m sorry we let youu (sic) down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date.”

That’s going to be a hard promise to keep if Bell, who’s amassed nearly 4,000 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons, is not on the field.

And if he continues to stay away, regaining the trust of his teammates could be even harder.

“Why play hide and seek? Why let your agent say this?” said center Maurkice Pouncey, who suggested it’s unfair of Bell to keep the team in the dark.

“Just man up and tell us what you’re going to do.”

In the interim, Pittsburgh is moving ahead with second-year back James Conner, who’s coming off an impressive preseason and is already a local hero after beating cancer when he played collegiately at Pitt.

“A star is born every year in the NFL. Did anyone know (Kansas City’s) Kareem Hunt would be an all-pro before last season?” reminded Pouncey. “If James Conner didn’t have cancer, he’d have been a first-round pick. Just watch him.”

Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.


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