By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers trickled into training camp on Thursday in pickup trucks and Porsches, Rolls Royces and Rubicons.
And in the case of ageless linebacker James Harrison, a firetruck.
Because of course he did.
Left tackle Alejandro Villaneuva showed up too, arriving with pen in hand to sign a contract extension that made the former Army Ranger a millionaire several times over as the protector of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side for the rest of the decade.
Yet the player perhaps most vital to Pittsburgh’s hopes of tracking down Super Bowl champion and longtime nemesis New England by the end of January was nowhere to be found.
While his teammates went through the customary opening paces — from check-in to a conditioning test — Le’Veon Bell never made it to St. Vincent College.
The Pro Bowler has yet to sign the franchise tender that will pay him more than $12 million this season.
And while they’d rather have Bell’s familiar No. 26 on the sideline when practice starts Friday, the guys blocking for him understand business is business.
“I’m not mad at him, I’m happy for the guy,” guard Ramon Foster said. “It’s an opportunity for Le’Veon to take care of his family for generations, so why not take care of it now?”
Pittsburgh placed the franchise tag on Bell in the offseason, but was unable to find common ground for a long-term agreement.
General manager Kevin Colbert tabled any talks of revisiting an extension until after the 2017 season.
Bell, who averaged more than 150 yards of total offense last fall, tweeted “I guess I just gotta get better” when the July 17 deadline passed without a new deal in place.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown isn’t concerned so much about Bell improving as much as he is about Bell simply getting to camp.
Brown, who signed a four-year, $72-million extension in February and strolled into camp in the back seat of a 1931 Rolls Royce, isn’t sure Bell is making a point by holding out.
“I just understand the history of how these things work out,” Brown said.
“The Steelers never negotiate with civilians, especially when you don’t show up. The first rule of getting better is showing up. But I’m here, everyone’s here, you have to get the year started off on the right foot.”
Center Maurkice Pouncey offered to take a pay cut to help speed up the process.
“He can have some of my money,” said Pouncey, who signed a $44-million contract extension in 2014. “I’m totally fine with that. They can erase a year of my contract. I’m cool with just going out there and playing.”
Bell wants to reset what has been a stagnant (by NFL standards) market for running backs in recent years.
While the 25-year-old is among the most versatile players in the league — Bell caught 75 passes in just 12 games last season — he has been suspended twice for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and also has struggled to stay healthy.
Knee injuries ended his season in 2014 and 2015 and a tweaked groin rendered him a bystander in a one-sided AFC championship game loss to the Patriots.
He underwent surgery in the offseason to fix the groin and coach Mike Tomlin said there are no concerns about it being an issue whenever Bell decides to pull into the parking lot. It’s everything else that has Tomlin concerned.
“We’re a group that values this team building process and doing it in this setting,” Tomlin said. “There are consequences of him not being here.”
Tomlin called Bell’s absence an “unfortunate circumstance,” one the team managed to avoid with Villanueva.
The 28-year-old — who did several tours in Afghanistan after graduating from the Army before giving the NFL a shot in 2013 — had yet to sign his one-year exclusive rights free agent tender the club offered him in the spring, fueling speculation he might hold out.
Instead, Villanueva was on the field running sprints by late afternoon.
The question now is when the weapon Foster called “an MVP candidate” will join in.
No matter how long Bell’s holdout lasts, the Steelers don’t expect it to be a distraction.
“Look at his numbers, look at his production,” Foster said. “You know what he’s going to do and he does it and you can’t stop it. Those are most valuable player type of folks and I’m happy to be blocking for the guy.”
NOTES: The NFL has not cleared WR Martavis Bryant, coming off a year-long suspension for violating the league’s drug policy, to practice or play in games. Tomlin called the issue “procedural” and that Bryant and the team “will work extremely hard” to fulfill the conditional terms of Bryant’s re-instatement. … WR Sammie Coates will start camp on the physically unable to perform list after undergoing a second arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. … WR Canaan Severin was also placed on the PUP list after failing the conditioning test. … S Daimion Stafford was put on the reserve/did not report list.
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