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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Could Earl Thomas be the Solution to the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell Problem?

The first and third-most talked about contract disputes (Khalil Mack is safely at number two) in the NFL this year have dragged on into the regular season. If you are a football fan, you no doubt know that Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will not sign his franchise tag tender. You likely also know the Seahawks are locked in a heated dispute with safety Earl Thomas. Both are elite level players responsible for a lot of the success these two teams have had in recent years, but both seem equally intent on playing elsewhere in order to get a bigger paycheck. Speculation about where each could land continues to roll on, but it is possible Seattle and Pittsburgh could solve the other’s problem.

So far this year, Pittsburgh has been burned in the secondary. The Steelers have allowed the fifth most passing yards and are tied with the Saints for the most passing touchdowns given up. For Seattle, this team has stated it would like to get back to running the ball more. Unfortunately, the Seahawks rank 25th in rushing yards and have the third worst yards per carry average in the league. Even with a bevy of options in the backfield, no one has managed to really take control.

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Bell has missed 15 games over the past three seasons with the Steelers. (Wikimedia Commons)

The truth is, the Steelers no longer need Bell. He would still be an upgrade over James Connor, but the second year back from the University of Pittsburgh ranks eight in yards from scrimmage so far this year. The need to patch up the secondary is a big one. Earl Thomas would be a huge upgrade over Sean Davis. Pro Football Focus ranks Davis as the 41st safety in the league. Thomas tops the list.

For Seattle, they have a number of young backs, but the chance to add Le’Veon Bell and potentially reduce the number of hits Russell Wilson takes would be massive. Bell had the second most yards from scrimmage in the league last year. His ability as a pass blocker and pass catcher would take a ton of pressure off Wilson. Even though Seattle has a couple of young running backs, none of them will ever come close to playing at the same level as Bell as he enters his prime.

Financially, there is some interesting movement here. Bell is going to want a massive extension. Todd Gurley set the market in a lot of ways for running backs when he negotiated his extension with the Rams. CBS Sports reported back in July Bell wanted roughly $17 million per year in the deal, turning down a massive five-year $70-million offer from Pittsburgh. Seattle might be willing to go a little higher to land him. Using Spotrac, I put together a contract that pays Le’Veon an average of $15.1 million per year in the form of a 5-year $75.5-million deal. That is still short of his asking price, but it tops the Steelers’ last offer.

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Thomas has 28 career interceptions, including three this season. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas wants to be paid as well. Eric Berry is the highest paid safety in the league out in Kansas City. The Steelers already have a Bell-sized opening in their cap number, so absorbing Thomas’ cap hit this season would be no big deal. Signing Thomas to something like a 4-year $48 million contract should appease him. It would put him in the same category as Berry and Tyrann Mathieu in terms of average salary.

These are just some rough numbers I ran, but both seem like realistic contracts for each of them to sign. Bell and Thomas both desperately need a change of scenery. It checks a lot of boxes for both teams, filling a need, sending the player to the opposite conference to avoid playing them again and moving on from a player that clearly no longer wants to be part of the organization.

NFL Cornerstones: Running Back

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: LeVeon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Honorable Mentions: Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, Matt Forte

Adrian Peterson made some headlines yesterday by finally returning to the Minnesota Vikings and acting like he wants to play football. It got me around to thinking who the best running back to build a team around could be. Peterson is now 30 and likely will start to see some of his wear and tear really bring him down. His off the field issues are definitely not too appealing either. Needless to say, Peterson is not the selection. A couple of other injury prone runners in DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster also find themselves missing from this list.

LeVeon_BellInstead, the selection is the one and only LeVeon Bell from Pittsburgh. He is not perfect but in terms of what he is capable of, this is a no brainer. He only has two seasons under his belt and at 23 years old, Bell looks like he is going to be a bell cow running back in the NFL for quite some time.

He might not always be racking up 100 yards, but when he gets the ball, he consistently produces. Bell ranked in yards per carry this season with 4.7 per attempt. The Steelers’ superstar put up incredible totals as well ranking second in the league with 1,361 rushing yards. Bell is one of the NFL’s best backs when it comes to picking up yards on the ground.

But this is a passing league now, so rushing is no longer as heavily valued. That doesn’t matter for Bell because he is incredible as a receiver. The Michigan State product hauled in 83 receptions last season, second to only Matt Forte among running backs. His 854 yards receiving also ranked first among all backs. These weren’t dink and dunk plays either as his average per reception was 10.3 yards, good for second in the league for running backs. He continue to move after the grab as well, finishing second in the league in yards after catch.

Bell is a dual threat back. He had the second most yards from scrimmage this past season and had an unreal 5.94 yards per touch, which, excluding kick and punt returns, was tops in the NFL. For some reference, DeMarco Murry, who led the league in yard from scrimmage, averaged only 5.03 yards per touch. Bell was the most effective offensive player in the league this season when he had the ball, and I expect that to continue.

On top of all of his success, Bell also continues to show his sure hands. In two seasons, Bell has only one career fumble, including none this past year. On 662 career touches, Bell has lost the ball just once.

There are a couple of downsides with Bell though. He has a poor track record with drugs and has been suspended for three games because of marijuana use. Not having your best player on the field is not something you want to occur regularly. Additionally, he has no playoff experience, having missed Pittsburgh’s only game this season due to injury. Bell is also not much of a scorer, tallying only 19 total touchdowns in his first two years. Only LeSean McCoy has scored fewer touchdowns in that timespan among the players I considered.

Despite that, Bell is likely the best all-around offensive weapon in the NFL right now. He will continue to grow in the coming years and hopefully mature to the point where he is not getting suspended for drug use. There is no doubt in my mind though that Bell is the premier running back going forward and will be for years to come.

Assigning NFL Honors

The fourth annual NFL Honors ceremony is a week from tonight in Phoenix, Arizona. The ceremony is a big publicity event that the NFL has modelled similar to the Grammy’s or Oscar’s announcing all of the various award winners for the season. Like all award shows, there are tons of celebrities and a comedic personality hosting the show, this year being Seth Meyers. The real reason fans tune in though is to see who has been given the big awards for the year. Here is who I think should take home this year’s batch of trophies.

AP Most Valuable Player: Tony Romo, Cowboys
This has been one of the most difficult to determine MVP races in a few years. My pick this year though has to be Romo. The Cowboys’ quarterback finished the year with the best completion percentage, highest yards per attempt average and top passer rating. He did all of this while battling through a tough back injury that plagued him throughout the season. Romo also took care of the ball throwing only nine interceptions. What really validates Romo as the MVP was his five game winning drives, which tied for the league lead. He led the Cowboys to their first playoff berth since 2011 as well. He was the best player in the league this year.

AP Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
If I had told you that the Cardinals were going to win the NFC West this year back in September, you would’ve laughed at me. While they did not win it, only losing on a tiebreaker with Seattle, they finished tied for the best record in the league and made the playoffs despite losing the first two quarterbacks on their depth chart. That is a testament to the hard work of Arians. His team managed 12 wins this year despite having one of the most banged up offenses in the league. The Cardinals defense was simply incredible in some games this season and Arizona’s coach found some creative ways to move the ball offensively. Even when backed up against a wall, he succeeded. There is no doubt that Arians was the best coach in football this year.

AP Offensive Player of the Year: LeVeon Bell, Steelers
You can argue DeMarco Murray all you want, but when you play behind the road grading line that he had this year, you should do well. Plus the guy fumbled it five times this year. Meanwhile, Bell never fumbled the ball on any of his 290 carries or 83 receptions. Bell also averaged the same number of yards per carry so it stands to reason that he could have had Murray’s same production if had the same number of attempts. What really sets Bell apart is his versatility; he was a threat on the ground and through the air. Bell finished only 46 yards from scrimmage behind Murray, despite having 73 fewer touches. Bell was impressive and effective on his way to being the best offensive player in the league.

AP Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Texans
This one is absolutely no contest. Watt was far and away the best player on the defensive side of the football this season. He finished the season with over 20 sacks, the most tackles by a defensive lineman and the most pass deflections by a defensive lineman as well. He was a disruptive force yet again with his big play ability, scoring two defensive touchdowns, one on an interception and one on a fumble recovery. Watt showed a knack for forcing turnovers as well with his four forced fumbles and five recoveries. It is not set in stone, but this is the most sure thing at the NFL Honors ceremony.

AP Offensive Rookie of the Year: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
And he only needed 12 games to do it. He could even make a case as the best overall receiver this season. Beckham had over 90 catches, 1300 yards and 12 touchdowns. Every single one of those totals ranks in the top 10 for the NFL this season. The Giants’ rookie also had the most receiving yards per game by any player in the league. He also had the highlight reel catch of the decade thus far. No one deserves the award more than the New York wideout and I think he will walk away with it next Saturday.

AP Defensive Rookie of the Year: C.J. Mosely, Ravens
People are clamoring for Khalil Mack here but I think Mosely had the better season. The Ravens linebacker racked up 133 tackles this year, good for seventh in the NFL. He also had 3 sacks, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble. He became the backbone of a stout Baltimore rush defense allowing the fourth fewest rushing yards per game. He was also named a Pro Bowler, the first Ravens rookie ever to be named one. Considering Ray Lewis played for this franchise, that is downright impressive.

AP Comeback Player of the Year: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
You have to look at Gronk and wonder, “Wait he was hurt last year?” The Patriots tight end looked fairly fluid with how he moved around the field this season. His credentials for the award speaks for itself. He finished with the fourth most receptions, the most receiving yards and tied for the most receiving touchdowns among tight ends. He made some spectacular catches and proved once again that he is a very solid blocking tight end. Gronk roared back to life this year and should be awarded for his triumphant comeback.
Those are all of the top awards. There are several other ones to be named that night but these are the ones that are the most talked about. So now, I want to know if I got them right. Let me know what you think.

Determining the NFL MVP

Week 17 concludes the NFL season tomorrow and usually by this point, we all have a good sense of who the league MVP will be. For example, last year it was obvious that Peyton Manning would be named the most valuable player following his record-breaking performance where he topped the single season passing yards and passing touchdown records. Manning is still in the mix this year but it definitely not as clear-cut. I figured it would be fun to have a breakdown of some of the candidates for this year’s award.

We will stick with the reigning MVP from a year ago and start with Manning. The Broncos quarterback began the season right where he left off in the previous one (well minus the Super Bowl) and looked like he was on his way to his sixth MVP award. He averaged 305 yards and 3 touchdowns per game over the first seven he played. Then the Broncos visited New England and Peyton had his worst performance of the season at that time. In the seven games since the trip to Foxboro, Peyton has averaged only 269 yards and 2 touchdowns per game. Those are still good numbers, but they do not scream MVP either. Not to mention after throwing only three interceptions in the first seven games, he has thrown 12 in his last eight appearances. Sure Manning is still in the conversation but I do not think he is a legitimate contender this season. He does have a game against Oakland tomorrow, which he beat up to the tune of 340 yards and 5 touchdowns, but I do not think he will repeat the performance.

To another former league MVP, Aaron Rodgers might have the best chance to win this year’s trophy. He has been nothing but efficient so far this year, save two games in New Orleans and Buffalo. Rodgers got off to a “rocky start” or about as rocky as it ever gets for the Packers’ quarterback. Rodgers only has two games this year where he has thrown two interceptions. He has never thrown more than that all year and only has five in total on the season. Rodgers has also been the focal point of an offense that averages the second most points per game behind only the Patriots. The Packers’ game against Detroit tomorrow could be crucial to his MVP chances. He struggled the first time he played the Lions throwing for only 162 yards and 1 touchdown in a loss. Putting up a good performance against one of the best defenses in the league could cement Rodgers as the front-runner for the award.

It is time to look at the surprise of this year’s MVP race, Tony Romo. If I had told you this time last year that Romo would be a top candidate for this year’s award, you would have laughed at me. Romo has had a very good campaign though and has lead what many felt was a talent deprived Dallas Cowboys team to an 11-4 record so far this year. The things that stand out for Romo are his league leading completion percentage (70.3) his league leading yards per attempt (8.49) and his league leading quarterback rating (114.1). The things that hold Tony back are his yards per game average of 243, which ranks 18th in the league and the existence of Demarco Murray. Murray has rushed for the most yards in the league by over 400, which puts a bit of a damper on Romo’s campaign for most valuable player with teammate who has stolen a lot of the spotlight and offensive production. Still, Romo has a great touchdown to interception ratio (4:1) and has been stellar in the month of December. I think heading into the final week of the season, Romo is Rodgers’ greatest competition for the award.

We have a defensive player on this list as well. J.J Watt is having a season to remember, mainly due to the highlight reel has put on which includes two defensive scores and three offensive touchdown catches. Watt has been great though on the defensive side of the ball. He has recorded the most tackles by a defensive lineman this year, tied with Jason Pierre-Paul at 72. The Texans’ superstar also ranks second in sacks, just a half sack behind the league leader with 17.5 on the year. Watt also has the most pass deflections by a defensive lineman with ten. He has additionally racked up three forced fumbles and a league-high five fumble recoveries. The issue is that Watt has not done enough to even guarantee that his team will be in the playoffs. It is hard as a defensive player to make such a huge impact that you can carry your team. Watt definitely has my vote for defensive player of the year but I do not think he will be the league MVP.

I am including one darkhorse candidate as well who has not really garnered much media attention as an MVP option but I think he deserves to be in the conversation. LeVeon Bell has been the most complete back in the NFL this season. He rushed for over 1300 yards, caught 77 passes for 774 yards and scored 11 total touchdowns. His 1341 rushing yards rank second only behind Demarco Murray. His 77 receptions are tied for 21st among all players, not just running backs, and are the most by any back. His 774 receiving yards also rank second only behind Matt Forte among running backs. His 4.8 yards per carry land him third among players with more than 200 attempts. Bell also has not fumbled the ball this season. So, the guy never turns the ball over and he has generated more yards from scrimmage than any other player except Murray, by only 35 yards mind you. Bell racked up over 225 yards of offense and accounted for 3 total touchdowns the last time he met the Bengals. If he can even come close to reciprocating those numbers, he has a chance at being in the conversation for MVP.

There are other players you can make cases for in the MVP race, (most notably Tom Brady or Murray) but these are the ones I think have the best chance to win it. It will be interesting to see how Week 17 affects this tight race. I am curious to know who you think should be the MVP. Feel free to comment and tell me why. Enjoy watching on Sunday.