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.

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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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Bring On Boston: What the Yankees Learned in the Wild Card

The New York Yankees. The Boston Red Sox. In a playoff series. Need I say more?

My editor says I do, so here I am writing this piece. Do not let that take away from the fact that for the first time in almost 15 years, the greatest rivalry in baseball, and arguably in all of sports (high praise coming from a graduate of the Duke-UNC rivalry) returns, in October no less, and it is back with a vengeance.

The feel of this iconic clash is different now. Babe Ruth will not be trading his socks for pinstripes. Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek will not be jawing at home plate. The entire game will not come down to David Ortiz and Mariano Rivera, as it always seemed to do. For the love of the baseball gods, Pedro Martinez is not going to throw an elderly bench coach to the ground. Poor Don Zimmer. Even Tyler Austin, the guy who started the lone skirmish between the clubs this year, will be watching from home like the rest of us after getting traded to the Twins in July. Yes, the animosity may seem to have simmered down – maybe because the steroids are out of everyone’s systems – but the competition of Yanks-Sox is as strong as ever.

For the bulk of the season, these were the best teams in baseball, 1a and 1b. A combination of injuries and slumps for the Yankees, coupled with multiple award-winning performances out of the likes of JD Martinez and Mookie Betts, made the division a laugher come late August. Do not let the final standings fool you: both of these teams can play ball. They can mash with the best of them, throw out flamethrower after flamethrower, and feature two of the brightest young coaches in the game. This may even be the best NYY-BOS matchup of all time, since it is the first time we are seeing them go against each other when both have over 100 wins on the season.

While Boston kicked back and watched on Wednesday, New York took care of business to set up this epic clash of titans, dispatching of the upstart Oakland Athletics 7-2 at Yankee Stadium. It followed the scripts experts and fans alike expected out of the Bronx this season: home runs and high heat, and once the Yankees get a late lead, good night. However, the wild card game showed us a lot about how this team is playing right now, both the good and the bad. Everything becomes important in a playoff series, especially against a team as potent as the Red Sox, hot off their best season ever with 108 wins.

So, while everything seemed peachy for the Yankees on Wednesday, let me tell you what I saw from watching every pitch, and what it means towards taking Boston down.

The Lineup

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Aaron Judge needs to stay hot for the Yankee offense to keep clicking.

The Good: What a time to get healthy and hot. Any doubts about Aaron Judge’s wrist were immediately erased when the 116 MPH screamer left the yard in the first inning, and the power kept on coming. Luke Voit, the hottest hitter you’ve never heard of, nearly joined the fray when he came inches short in the 6th off of All-Star closer Blake Treinen, but he was clearly happy with the stand-up two-RBI trible. Giancarlo Stanton hit a towering shot late, outdoing Judge with a 117 MPH, 450-foot moonshot. None of those hits were cheap shots to say the least, but power was not the only thing the Yankees showed. They made one of the best bullpens in baseball work for it, drawing a ton of walks and being selective with their swings. When the Yankees make good swings, the ball goes a long way.

The Bad: The Yankees did end up only having 7 hits in the game, and the only inning where they had more than one was the four-run 6th. The Yankee lineup has been known to be streaky and laden with strikeouts, and they cannot afford to let top-end starters like Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello get in a groove on the mound. Not to mention, a few bats never showed up that need to, in order to make this lineup really groove one through nine. Gleyber Torres and Andrew McCutcheon were quiet, Miguel Andujar only got on with a cheap infield single, and Gary Sanchez’s woes continued. More on him later.

Luis Severino

The Good: Sevy put last year behind him quickly, huh? After not making it out of the first in last year’s wild card game, Severino took a no-hitter into the 5th, where he was pulled after two singles. He had great life on his pitches all night. The fastball velocity was top of the line, probably thanks to the lack of pressure to go deep into a playoff game with a behemoth bullpen backing you up. His slider was equally nasty, causing a lot of swing and misses from the Athletic batters with nasty late movement. Not to mention he pitched well again at home as he continues to shake off the late season slump that cost him a chance at the Cy Young Award. Best part? 5 days rest would put him in line to pitch again on Monday – Game 3, at home again.

The Bad: Did anyone else notice that Severino never seemed to hit the target? He was missing spots for most of the night but was lucky that he never made a bad miss. Perhaps that’s because the Oakland A’s were last in baseball in batting average against fastballs above 97 MPH, and the anticipation of that made his slider look even more devastating. Boston hits too well and has seen Severino too many times to let that happen. Not to mention, it took him 87 pitches to not even make an out in the 5th inning, with 4 walks sprinkled along the way. Severino may have been nasty, but he was not sharp, definitely not enough to continue his success against the Sox.

Gary Sanchez

The Good: Sanchez was one of the biggest question marks about the linuep for the Wild Card game. It was unknown whether he would catch Severino after allowing two big past balls in a loss back in August when the two last worked together against Oakland, but his defense was spectacular on Wednesday. After looking lethargic at backstop all season, Sanchez was moving well behind the plate and blocked every ball expertly. When a pitcher can trust hit catcher to stop balls in front of him, they are less afraid to throw their out pitches in the dirt. What may have been the reason why Severino struggled late season turned into a reason why he, and the relievers after him, performed so well on Wednesday. Calling a good game and hustling on the base paths are other good signs pointing towards putting him back behind the plate for Game 1 on Friday.

The Bad: I did not think I would ever talk about how Gary needs to stay in a lineup because of his defense, because his offense was abysmal again. After hitting .186 in the regular season, he began post-season play without a ball leaving the infield. Flip side? No strikeouts, and putting the ball in play will work well, but Sanchez needs to stop trying to pull everything, causing him to roll over balls to the left side. If he can find his stroke the other way and start making solid contact, he could make a big difference against a Boston team he’s been know to feast on.

The Bullpen

The Good: Besides a well-placed outside fastball that was turned around by the MLB HR leader for a wall scraper in the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium, every guy out of the Yankee pen the other night was frankly unhittable. Dellin Betances, often known to give up others’ runs when coming in with runners on base, worked out of Severino’s mess masterfully. Coupled with a strong second inning, he put 6 up, 6 down with three strikeouts in what may have been one of the best outings I’ve seen from him in a long time. Equally comforting? After injuries late season, Aroldis Chapman got his velocity back, lighting up the gun with 100’s and 101’s while shutting the door for the win. The Yankees will need him sharp to close out close games against the Sox.

The Bad: To be honest? No complaints. Sure, Khris Davis beat Zach Britton on the one pitch, but it was a decent pitch that barely got muscled out of the smallest part of the smallest park in the big leagues. That being said, as the only lefty in the bullpen outside of Chapman, Britton needs to get his confidence back because Aaron Boone needs to be able to rely on his trade deadline pickup. Speaking of the skipper…

Aaron Boone

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Luis Severino made his mark after his manager trusted him once more

The Good: Every call seemed to be on point and immediately justified. Start Severino? Throw 4 no-hit innings? Yank him in the 5th for Betances early with two guys on and no outs? Out of the jam. Take out Andujar and Voit for defensive replacements? Adeiny Hechavarria made one of the greatest leaping catches I’ve ever seen by an infielder, and Neil Walker made a great stab on his knees for the final out of the game. Every lever the rookie manager pulled worked out for the Yankees, meaning the skipper is now undefeated in the postseason.

The Bad: It only gets harder now. Managing the bullpen over a five-game series and navigating Boston’s equally terrifying lineup will be a challenge. Knowing when to insert the likes of Brett Gardner and Austin Romine will be just as difficult of decisions. Boone needs to be decisive and trust his gut in the playoffs, but sometimes the pressure can get to you the first time. Luckily for him, Boston’s rookie skipper Alex Cora faces the same battle, and he does not have a game already under his belt.

Yankee Stadium

The Good: Yankee fans showed up loud and proud for their team. Two pitches into the game, with Severino already ahead in an 0-2 count, the entire stadium was already on their feet. It stayed that way for every two strike pitch the rest of the game. When Judge blasted that one out in the first inning, forget about it. The new stadium erupted in ways that have rarely been seen since the Bombers moved across the street before the 2009 season, and the players seemed to relish in it.

The Bad: They’re the wild card team, which means no home-field advantage until the World Series. When it comes to Boston’s home field, Fenway will be just as hostile of an environment as the Bronx is to outsiders. This is a young team with several key contributors lacking significant playoff experience, and they cannot afford to get rattled by the Boston faithful and come back to New York facing elimination. Steal one away from home and the Yankees could advance on home turf.

I’m excited. The only upsetting part of it is that it’s not a seven-game series, but whoever emerges victorious from this matchup becomes the odd-on favorite to take home the rings. If the Yankees want to pull off the upset, they need to build off the great performance in the wild card game and hit the Red Sox in the mouth in Game 1. If they can get back to the Stadium with a win, they have a chance to do something special. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.

Yankees-Red Sox in the playoffs: there’s nothing better.

Countdown to the “Impossible”: Breaking the 2 Hour Barrier

Impossible is a word we throw around a bit too often. How often have you heard a cheesy movie villain, having been foiled, scream out, “That’s impossible!” as his well-laid plans fall to shreds? Even in the real world, many times people have said things could not be done, and then been proven wrong.

Sail west? Impossible – until Christopher Columbus did it.

Walk on the moon? Impossible – until Neil Armstrong did it.

That math homework you have due tomorrow? That may actually be impossible after all.

Sports have lent us a few of these moments as well, where we mistook improbability for impossibility and were dumbfounded by truly amazing achievements, such as Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals in Beijing, or Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016 at 5,000-1 odds at the start of the season. Some people have even said the Cubs breaking their 108-year curse, or Tiger winning another golf tournament, could never happen, and don’t they look foolish now?

There have even been times in history where science–science–said a feat could not be accomplished, which brings me to my obscure sport of preference: distance running. For all the times you probably ran the mile in grade school gym class, huffing along wishing you could run faster just to make the pain stop, you probably never thought that at one point in history, scientists declared that a human could not possibly run faster than four minutes for a mile. Based on their calculations of human lung capacity and pain tolerance, no man could maintain the pace needed to run four consecutive laps at a sub-60 second clip. It was a feat deemed impossible.

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Sir Roger Bannister, finishing the world’s first sub-4 mile, 1954

The knight that saved us from this horror? Sir Roger Bannister – an actual knight! In 1954, he made the impossible happen by running 3:59.4 for the full 5,280 feet and etched himself in history, which is why the Queen knighted him in 1975.  And just like you often see, if someone else can do it, so can you. Within 6 weeks of Sir Roger setting the record, it was broken again, and everyone was  striving to reach the now-attainable mark.  On February 14th, 2015, 19 runners broke 4 minutes on the same day – my friend from Duke was the slowest of the bunch, but still, he gets to tell everyone that he did what once was deemed impossible. And believe me, he does tell everyone.

Why does this matter now? Because the next impossibility in running is oh-so-close to being blown away: the 2-hour marathon. People in the running community have had their sights set on this for a while now, thinking it would be the next barrier to go, but that does not take away from the sheer madness of running 26.2 miles in under 120 minutes.

If you’re reading this and not a running nerd like I am, and I know just about all of you aren’t, here’s some context. To run exactly 2:00:00 for a marathon, you need to maintain an average pace of 4:34.8/mile. There are very few people on this planet who could run that pace for 26.2 seconds, let alone miles. Makes that gym class mile sound a lot easier, huh?

But people believed the impossible could happen. A few of them happened to work at Nike, so they set up a challenge back in 2017.  They brought three of the best marathoners in the world at that time – Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese – to a flat track with a pace car going the exact pace for the entire time, gave them prototype shoes lighter and more advanced than any road racing shoe ever before created, and let them do their thing. But even in the perfect circumstances of that day, they fell short, albeit barely – Kipchoge ran the distance in 2 hours and 25 seconds.

So why now, suddenly, do I think the feat can actually be achieved? Because last weekend in Berlin, Kipchoge reset the world record to 2:01:47 – an average of 4:38.8/mile, or 4 seconds away from the barrier pace. Without a pacer, without a perfectly flat track, and without the best in the world by his side for every step. In the middle of a sanctioned road race (even if the Nike crew had in fact broken 2, the IAAF, track and field’s governing body, would not have counted it because it was not a sanctioned event), the gap to the magical number was shaven down an additional 78 seconds, which is astonishing.

The fact that it was proven in race that mankind still can reach beyond what they were once deemed physically incapable of means that the will, and the talent, is there for someone to make a push for it. And as shoe technology and training methods continue to advance at blistering speed, I truly believe that it is no longer a question of if, but when, man will break the two-hour mark.

But when indeed was a question I asked myself. So, backed by Wikipedia, Excel, and a quick refresher in econometrics, here’s my best guess:

As you can see, the curve of the record does eventually break the barrier, meaning that at our current trajectory, the world record will be broken on exactly February 7th, 2040… or something in that ballpark.

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While not mathematically sound, just seeing that graph excites me about the future of the sport. People said it could not be done. Science deemed the task impossible. And yet, right there in the data, is a very powerful thing: hope. Because that faint glimmer of hope is what kick-started all of the impossible moments in history. Hope leads to determination, and determination leads to hard work, and those three together can accomplish anything.

So what will I be doing in 2040? Hopefully watching the impossible happen all over again.