Matt Williamson, a former NFL scout who currently writes for NDT scouting and hosts on Steelers Nation Radio and the Locked on NFL podcast, penned this piece on the Le'Veon Bell situation exclusively for Pro Football Weekly. Check out all of Matt's work @WilliamsonNFL.
As was the case one year ago, Le’Veon Bell is once again an unrestricted free agent and is the most desirable running back in this free-agent class. Pittsburgh slapped the franchise tag on him last year, which resulted in Bell reporting very late to training camp. In the end, Bell had another terrific season for the Steelers.
Bell is as important to Pittsburgh’s offense as Antonio Brown. Not only do the Steelers utilize Bell’s outstanding receiving skills in a multitude of ways, but they have coached their offensive linemen to block in a somewhat different manner because of Bell’s unique and unbelievably patient running style. Without question, he is a focal point in their offense and one of the best, most multifaceted running backs in the NFL.
Bell has played five seasons in Pittsburgh but entered the league very young. He actually will turn 26-years-old this week. Even though Bell is still a relatively young running back by NFL standards, he has handled an unbelievable workload in his career. Bell also has been suspended and has dealt with major injuries over his five seasons.
Bell was just 36 yards shy of rushing leader Kareem Hunt even though he sat out a meaningless Week 17 contest against Cleveland. But Bell averaged just under a full yard per carry less than Hunt and .7 yards per carry fewer than Todd Gurley, who finished second in the league in rushing. The volume was there for Bell in 2017, but unlike in previous seasons, he wasn’t ripping off chunk runs.
Bell will never have Gurley’s speed or breakaway ability, but he only had three carries for 20 or more yards despite carrying the ball 321 times behind one of the best offensive lines in football. Bell carried the ball 34 more times than anyone in the league in 2017, and only nine players (all wide receivers) had more receptions. Over the past two seasons, Bell averages over 21.5 carries and a whopping 27.4 touches per game. Bell’s yards per carry average fell from 4.9 to 4.0 and his average yards per reception dropped a half-yard as well from 2016 to 2017. The tape shows that Bell wasn’t quite as explosive this past season as he was in 2016.
Bell is still an outstanding player and a difference maker. In today’s NFL, few can rival what he brings to the table, and he is an extreme challenge for every defensive coordinator that Pittsburgh faces. If the opponent plays heavy personnel against the Steelers, Bell will routinely detach from the formation and run wide receiver routes at 225 pounds. If the defense prefers extra defensive backs on the field, Bell will get carry after carry. Because of Bell, there often is no right answer to lining up against Pittsburgh’s offense.
Not only that, but the Steelers are clearly a contending team with one of the league’s most talented rosters. Ben Roethlisberger has stated that he will return for possibly the next several seasons, but the window to win another Super Bowl in Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger will not be open for long. Therefore, potentially losing a key piece like Bell might not come at a worse time.
Few expect Bell to leave Pittsburgh, but this isn’t as easy of a decision for the Steelers as you might expect. Here are three scenarios of how to handle Bell this offseason.
Let Bell walk: If the Steelers just let Bell test the market and leave Pittsburgh, they would open up a lot of salary cap space to use on the defensive side of the ball, particularly at linebacker or free safety. The Steelers most likely would also end up with a third-round compensatory pick a year from now.
Of course they wouldn’t fully replace what Bell brings to the table on the field, but for a far more reasonable cost, the Steelers could sign another free agent such as Carlos Hyde, Isaiah Crowell, Rex Burkhead or Jerrick McKinnon at a fraction of the cost. Then, in a very deep draft for running backs, Pittsburgh could use a pick on the first two days on a running back with fresher legs who would be under a cheap contract for the next four or five years.
Also, the Steelers wouldn’t be at such a huge disadvantage when their lead back was unavailable, a situation we have seen too regularly over the past few years. They have been very Bell-dependent. Without Bell in 2018, Pittsburgh would have to tactically change, but we saw the Super Bowl teams, Philadelphia and New England, thrive with deep committee backfields. Why couldn’t Pittsburgh take the same approach?
Franchise Bell again: Bell has publicly said that he will consider retirement if Pittsburgh franchises him a second year in a row. Now, is anyone really buying that? Probably not, but clearly he was disenchanted with the same situation a year ago and began the year somewhat sluggish by his standards after staying away from the team for a prolonged period before the season began.
Bell cost the Steelers $12.1 million last year, and that number would increase to $14.5 million for 2018. While it might not make Bell happy to receive that huge chunk of guaranteed money and then hit the free-agent market yet again a year from now, the Steelers could certainly lean this direction and run Bell into the ground this upcoming year as they pursue another Lombardi Trophy.
The Steelers drafted James Connor last year but would be wise to add another running back of prominence if they are to take this approach again. Connor really struggled to stay on the field, and the newcomer would not only challenge Connor for the backup job, but he also could conceivably be Bell’s replacement a year from now.
Sign Bell to a long-term deal: Bell and Pittsburgh explored this option a year ago but were unable to get anything finalized. Bell wants to be paid not only as an elite running back but also as a No. 2 wide receiver. The stats show that he has a point, and clearly he has been instrumental in Pittsburgh’s recent offensive success.
But the starting point for a contract with Bell would be the guaranteed money he would see from back-to-back franchise tags in 2018 and 2019. That is a lot of guaranteed money for any running back, let alone one that has an injury and suspension history and has shown some immaturity, and might be starting to decline ever so slightly after an abundance of touches.
In the end, the most likely result is that Pittsburgh and Bell will sit down to negotiate a long-term deal without success once again. Therefore, the Steelers will slap the franchise tag on Bell for a second year in a row ensuring that he makes $26 million over a two-year stretch.
All of that makes perfect sense for where this team and player are right now, even though Bell is likely to be unhappy with the tagging once again. However, the wisest move for the entire team very well could be the first option laid out above — just let Bell leave town instead of investing so heavily in a single running back.