Trade a Bell? How the Le’Veon Drama Can (and Should) End


In case you have not heard, Le’Veon Bell has not played an NFL snap this season.

Oh, who am I kidding? If you are a Steelers fan, follow an NFL-related social media account, or made the mistake of drafting him in fantasy and hoping for the best (guilty as charged), you know the whole story. Considered by many as the top running back in the league, Bell put up strong numbers again in 2017, getting over 400 touches and putting up a combined 1,946 years and 11 touchdowns for the playoff-bound Steelers, getting voted first team All-Pro for the second time in the process.

However, for the second straight year, the Steelers put the franchise tag on Bell, refusing to give him the long-term contract he believed he deserved. While I would easily jump at the opportunity to play ball for $14.5 million, the cash-strapped Steelers, who had given Antonio Brown a four-year, $68 million-dollar extension weeks before, decided to balk at giving the same money to Bell. Obviously taking offense, Bell very publicly bashed the franchise and demanded money worth his play. Pittsburgh did eventually make Bell an offer in July, willing to pony up $70 million over five years, but Bell turned down the offer, not wanting to play for less than his tag on an annual basis.

587px-leveon_bell_26_practicing_2013
Bell has told the Steelers he will return during the team’s week 7 bye. (Wikimedia Commons)

Fairly so, might I add – Bell was well within his rights to turn down such a gargantuan payday, because he might be worth more. At 26, Bell is still in his prime and will continue to perform at very high levels before even being considered an old running back. Not to mention that Bell is far more than his position on the depth chart – he has been the engine that makes the Steeler offense run for the last few years. He caught 85 passes last year for over 650 yards. Bell is rare breed. Very few receivers can keep up with those numbers, and definitely not while shouldering almost 1,300 yards rushing on top of it.

One of the few other players capable of putting up numbers like that is Todd Gurley. He has done it just once, in 2017, and luckily it was a contract year for him. The upstart Los Angeles Rams did pay their man, giving Gurley $15 million a year for his services. When healthy, Bell has put up those kinds of numbers ever since he came into the league – he deserves as much if not more than Gurley. Top flight receivers like Mike Evans and Odell Beckham, Jr., have been getting paid recently, too, getting $16.5 and $19 million a year respectively to go along with Antonio Brown’s aforementioned $17 million. For Le’Veon’s talents, he feels his contract should be in that stratosphere to play football.

However, Pittsburgh refuses to pay it, so they turned to the second-year player, cancer survivor and hometown hero from the University of Pittsburgh in James Conner, to take the reins in the backfield. While his hairstyle might be questionable (like a mop glued to the back of his shaven head), his play has been anything but. Project his numbers through five weeks for the entire season, and Conner, currently averaging over four yards a carry and almost 11 yards per catch, would get over 1,800 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs. Those are the kind of numbers Pittsburgh would be happy to get from Bell, but instead of paying over $15 million for them, they only give Conner $578,000, and they have him under control for another two seasons after this one.

So could Bell play again with the Steelers this season? Maybe. Having both Conner and Bell on the field could give opposing defenses fits in game planning, especially since Bell is capable of lining up out wide and taking screens. The issue is Conner and Bell still play very similar games. Bell might be a bit more explosive, and Conner may pack a bit of a stronger punch at the point of attack, but both have shown that they can be factors in the running and passing games, all the while making defenses adjust and opening holes for Ben Roethlisberger to find the likes of Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster downfield. However, it would be hard to justify paying Bell for the rest of the season when he may not add significant value over just having Conner. Realistically, he should not stay in Pittsburgh.

Likewise, if Bell is going to leave in the offseason when the tag expires and officially become a free agent, the Steelers would be remiss not to get something back for him, and more than the third round compensatory pick Pittsburgh will likely get if he signs elsewhere. The problem about trading Bell this season, however, is the salary cap hit that comes with him. Bell is not officially under contract at the moment, but his franchise tag cap number would be about $10.3 million. There are not a ton of teams that have that much free space right now. The team looking to trade for him would likely need to sign him to a long-term deal to justify the trade as well.

So who can meet Bell’s demands? Here are the teams that could afford him for this season:

Team Salary Cap Remaining Current RBs
San Francisco 49ers $87.6 million Jerick McKinnon*, Matt Breida
Cleveland Browns $54.6 million Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson
Indianapolis Colts $52.5 million Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines
Denver Broncos $34.4 million Royce Freeman, Phillip Lindsay
Tennessee Titans $23.1 million Dion Lewis, Derrick Henry
Houston Texans $20.7 million Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue
New York Jets $19.1 million Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell
Philadelphia Eagles $11.3 million Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement
Cincinnati Bengals $10.7 million Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard
Buffalo Bills $10.6 million LeSean McCoy, Chris Ivory

An interesting crew, to say the least, but unfortunately not too many places make sense. In fact, four of these teams signed new starting running backs this past offseason. The Browns, Titans, and Jets should be pleased with their new additions for now, so consider them out. The 49ers caught a bad break when their new guy, Jerick McKinnon, tore his ACL in the preseason, but Matt Breida has been a suitable replacement, and the 1-4 start would not justify making a brash decision when the division leader is 5-0 right now.

Let’s address the obvious ones, too. There is no way Pittsburgh deals Bell to Cincy. It would be insane to move him within the division. Denver has two rookie running backs it really likes in Freeman and Lindsay. The Bills would be a fascinating place for Bell to land, but that team is way more than just one piece away and likely not interesting in pursuing Bell anyway, especially since they are trying to shop their star running back already.

Philly has been heavily linked with this deal after restructuring Fletcher Cox’s deal to open up more cap room. However, the Eagles are also rumored to be pursuing a reunion with LeSean McCoy. McCoy fits more of what Philadelphia needs, which is a one-year rental that is at least somewhat familiar with the system. The assumption is that at 30 years old, McCoy will cost a lot less for the Eagles to acquire as well.

The Colts and Texans make some interesting suitors. Both live in the AFC South, where the Jaguars and Titans are both tied rather unconvincingly to the division lead at 3-2. At 2-3, the Texans are still very much so in the hunt. However, Deshaun Watson does not look as explosive this season in his return from a knee injury of his own, struggling to keep possession with nine turnovers on the season. Lamar Miller was injured in Week 5 and has been unconvincing in a Texans uniform otherwise. Alfred Blue provided a decent target out of the backfield in his stead, but neither is a kind of bell cow you can hand or dump the ball off to and let the magic happen. $16 million is a large sum to pay when Miller is still on the books through the end of next season, but Bell could add some relief to the Houston offense and open up their playbook a bit.

Andrew Luck
Adding Bell would take a ton of pressure off Andrew Luck. (Wikimedia Commons)

As for Indy, take everything I just said and amplify it. Sure, the Colts are off to a 1-4 start, but they are only two games back with well over half the season to go. The offense may look like its purring, but take deeper look into the stats and you will see there is room for improvement. Andrew Luck is averaging almost 50 pass attempts per game, but has under 1,500 passing yards for the season. His 6.09 yards/attempt ratio is 32nd in the NFL right now, only ahead of the magnanimous crew of Tyrod Taylor, Nick Foles and Sam Bradford, all of whom have since been benched. Meanwhile, not a single Colts running back is averaging more than 35 yards per game. 35!!! Le’Veon Bell could vastly improve the 29th ranked rushing attack in the league, as well as provide a dynamic safety blanket for the oft-pressured Luck. Those two together could single (double?)-handedly carry Indianapolis to the postseason. Maybe them playing defense could help, too, because I doubt it would hurt.

Another interesting tidbit is that the Texans and Colts have the same assets to offer back to Pittsburgh as well. In 2019, both teams are sitting on two second round picks after making moves in last year’s draft. With the Colts getting the Jets’ pick in the Sam Darnold trade, and the Texans shipping Duane Brown to Seattle for their 2nd rounder, the Steelers may be willing to part with their formerly-beloved star in exchange for that pick maybe paired with another player or a lower round pick.

Personally, I think it make a lot of sense for the Colts to go after Bell. They can offer him whatever contract he wants basically with their ample cap space. Their offense is already fairly strong and adding Bell would only make it more threatening. Plus, Bell is an excellent pass blocker, which coupled with his mere presence in the backfield will protect Luck from opposing rushers. Even with two rookie running backs, Indy could add a franchise player for well under his usual trade value. If the Colts think they still have a shot this season, do not be surprised if they make a play for one of the best players in the NFL before the deadline in Week 8.

Until then, I’ll dangle Bell on my own fantasy trading block and hope someone bites.

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