PITTSBURGH -- A Pittsburgh Steeler asked with a smile, "Where's Le'Veon?" when coming off the practice field during a recent offseason workout.
Last year, that question would have had a hopeful tone.
Now, life without Le'Veon Bell is no longer a question but an expectation.
Players have wised up to NFL business after Bell's rocky franchise tag negotiations with the Steelers cast a pall over his offseason for the second consecutive year.
Guard David DeCastro would love to see Bell at training camp but braces for the alternative: that Bell is gone until September.
“I don’t know. You look at last year as a pattern, it’s probably not good," DeCastro said. "It will probably be the exact same. I’d put money on it. But you never know. There’s always a chance.”
Absent that chance -- a long-term deal reached before the July 16 deadline -- Steelers players are left to reconcile two agendas: wanting the All-Pro back to get paid, and wanting him back on the field.
Bell told ESPN he won't accept an extension worth less than $14.5 million per year, his franchise tag number for 2018. If the sides fail to reach a deal, Bell will play out a one-year deal at that number. But he's not under contract because he hasn't signed that tag, and he might not do so for a while.
Antonio Brown is the only Steeler who has publicly urged Bell to join the team for workouts, but Brown was speaking through the prism of his own experience. Brown never held out before reaching a new deal with the team in 2017.
To be sure, Bell's dynamics are far different since the team is using the tag to block Bell from true free agency. As a counter, Bell is staying away, refusing to sign that tag.
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey hopes both sides "fall in the middle and make a decision" but also believes the mood has changed internally -- guys are prepared to work, with or without Bell.
"I think last year a lot of guys were like, 'Oh, Le'Veon's not here,'" Heyward-Bey said. "Nobody cares. We're out here and we have to get work done. ... We'll see him when we see him. Next man up."
Added linebacker Bud Dupree: "If he comes, he comes. If he don’t come, he don’t come. We’re still going to keep rolling and keep getting better. The team can’t stop."
From the business side, Bell does have empathy in the locker room.
Safety Morgan Burnett recognizes Bell has one crack at a life-changing contract.
“You definitely understand, because it’s definitely a business," Burnett said. "Within your career, it seems long but it’s only a short period of your life. So the stuff you accomplish, the money you make within this time, you want to find a way to make it expand the rest of your life.”
In Bell's absence, the offensive line's ability to find a rhythm is at least a mild concern. Bell averaged 3.46 yards per carry through the first three weeks of last season, and DeCastro said the offense must figure out a way to start faster in 2018. That could mean a heavier reliance on second-year back James Conner. Both quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Heyward-Bey have cited the need for Conner when discussing Bell's absence.
Last year, general manager Kevin Colbert was adamant that Bell was missing valuable reps by skipping camp.
Nearly a year later, teammates agree with Colbert, but they also expect Bell to be ready based on his track record.
"If anything, when you don't have contact for nine months, it's going to be a little bit [of a transition]," Heyward-Bey said. "But the guy was leading the league in rushing [late in the year], had the most carries, first year he didn't get hurt. He comes here in shape. If he was a guy we were worried about that he'll come overweight or not in condition ... not at all. That guy's a pro."
Bell's 1,291 yards ranked third in the NFL, and he led all running backs in receptions (85) and rushing attempts (321).
Those are big numbers for a player to remain unsigned and away from the team, which has sparked mid-practice conversations among offensive linemen about the merits of the franchise tag, DeCastro said.
"There’s no easy way to do it," DeCastro said. "I don’t know if you can change the way the franchise tag works where you can get it done or not done by a certain time. I don’t know. It’s confusing. It’s a business. You can see both sides of it, so I’m not going to sit here and try to pick one side. It’s tough. Just the way it is. Hopefully he’ll come back sooner than later. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s hurting guys. It should be done a little sooner. Get it done so guys have to show up or not."
One thing all Steelers can agree on: Bell instantly bolsters a Super Bowl contender, whenever he does arrive.
“He’s great," defensive tackle Javon Hargrave said. "He brings a lot. He can catch and run, he can score touchdowns, block. He’s a big part of this team too. We know what we’ve got.”