By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots have themselves a bit of a situation regarding the uncertain playing status of Rob Gronkowski. But the Patriots aren’t alone among AFC contenders to currently be on shaky ground with one of their best players.

Unable to agree to terms on a new contract, the Pittsburgh Steelers are set to apply the franchise tag on running back Le’Veon Bell for the second straight year, according to ESPN.

And though Bell is just 26 years old and in the prime of his career, he said that he’ll have to consider all options — which includes not playing at all.

“I just have to decide if I’m going to play when the time comes,” Bell told ESPN.

Back in January, even before Bell and the Steelers lost to the Jaguars in the divisional round of the playoffs, Bell said retirement would be an option for him if the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him again.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I would definitely consider it,” Bell said in January.

Obviously, when a player of Bell’s skill and age makes such a threat, it’s often considered to just be posturing for more money. But considering the Steelers and Bell have now been at odds for two offseasons in a row, the team has to take him seriously. Bell also told ESPN that refusing to show up to work until Week 10 (so he can accrue an NFL season) is also a possibility.

According to the report, Bell wants to be paid a minimum of $14.5 million annually. That figure is what he’ll make in one year under the franchise tag for a second straight year, and he’s using it as a baseline for negotiations. (The franchise tag number for running backs in 2018 is $11.87 million, but NFL rules dictate that a player tagged for two straight years will be paid 120 percent of his previous year’s salary.)

The Steelers, as one might might imagine, don’t see the value in making a player the highest-paid at his position by a mile. (Devonta Freeman currently has the highest annual salary for running backs, at $8.25 million.)

Bell told ESPN that last year, he turned down a contract that would have paid him $42 million over the first three years of its life.

Bell racked up 1,946 yards from scrimmage in 15 games last year — 1,291 on the ground and 655 through the air — while scoring 11 touchdowns. In the Steelers’ lone postseason game, he rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown and also caught nine passes for 88 yards and a touchdown.

With a 13-3 record, the Steelers finished second in the AFC last year, behind the Patriots. They figure to once again be right in that mix of Super Bowl contenders in 2018, along with New England, Jacksonville, and Kansas City. But without Bell, remaining among the AFC’s elite would be a tall task.


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