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.

Steelers face a difficult choice

Saturday’s thrilling win over Cincinnati came at a huge cost for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Late in the game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a shot from Vontez Burfict that tore ligaments in his shoulder and sprained his AC joint.

Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger left Saturday’s game against the Bengals only to return and lead the game-winning drive. 

Monday seemed to offer comfort for Steelers nation as multiple sources reported that Roethlisberger would most likely play in the team’s next playoff game against Denver. However, Tuesday, Ben addressed the media and admitted that he has not tried throwing a football since the game. That does not inspire confidence.

Roethlisberger also said that he would play if he could, but would never take the field if he thought it would hurt his team. I don’t think Ben will be the best judge of that.

Roethlisberger did reenter the game on Saturday following his injury and made a handful of short throws to move the ball down the field. He didn’t look completely comfortable though, which makes you wonder if he will be able to run this high powered Steelers offense. Roethlisberger is a tough player, fighting through ankle injuries all season to play, but if he cannot make the throws required, then the team is better off with him on the bench.

This Broncos team that Pittsburgh will face this weekend is fresh off a bye and looking to avenge a loss from a month ago in the Steel City. Their defense is arguably the best in the league with probably the most depth at the outside pass rushing positions. Denver has excelled all season at pressuring the quarterback, registering the most sacks in the NFL. Denver also has a ball hawking secondary that has time and time again limited teams en route to becoming the league’s (enter ranking here) pass defense.

Mike Tomlin
Tomlin has not named a starter for this weekend’s game with Denver.

If I’m Mike Tomlin, knowing that Roethlisberger has a torn up throwing shoulder, I am starting his back up Landry Jones. He hasn’t started a playoff game before or won two Super Bowls like Roethlisberger, but a healthy Jones will keep the defense honest. With Big Ben under center, I could easily see Denver stacking the box on every play, daring Roethlisberger to throw it down field. With a bum shoulder, he would never be able to do it. Jones is definitely not as talented, but the threat of him throwing the ball down field should open up some other things for the Steelers offense.

Thinking more about it, I don’t know if I want to risk Roethlisberger either. Pittsburgh has a good young core that they have built around Roethlisberger. If he happened to injure his shoulder further in this game, a real possibility with how often Denver reaches the quarterback, the Steelers could be in danger of starting next season without Roethlisberger or jeopardizing his career. Big Ben isn’t so young any more, as this is his eleventh year in the league. Putting my franchise quarterback who has won two Super Bowls at risk is not high up on my to do list if I am Tomlin.

Earlier Wednesday, Pittsburgh announced that Roethlisberger would play in this weekend’s game against Denver, leaving me to shake my head once again. It does not seem to throw him back into the fire like that with the season on the line. It has also been well documented in the media just how banged up Big Ben is. That will likely provide those Broncos pass rushers a little extra incentive to get back there and nail Roethlisberger if they can.

There is very little to gain from putting an injury-riddled quarterback out on the field. There does not seem to be a way to fully protect Roethlisberger other than sitting him out of the contest. It would be in the best interest for both the team and for Ben himself. Landry Jones did not endear himself to the fans or the coaching staff when he threw that interception against Cincinatti, but for right now, he is there best, and realistically their only hope.

Counting down the most successful sports city

So following the Super Bowl and now starting the long four-month lull until another championship game is played, I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on the last 15 years of sports champions. More specifically, I am ranking the top ten sports cities in the US since 2000. This includes the five largest sports leagues in America, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS. The rankings will mainly rely on championships won by a single city but I will also take into account appearances in the finals as well. Let’s see if your city makes the list.

The cities just missing the cut are Houston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Houston has two titles, both coming from their MLS club the Dynamo. The Astros made a World Series run in 2005 but got swept. The Texans haven’t helped. Philly has four appearances in the big game but only one victory. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 but then lost the next year. The Eagles lost in 2005 as did the Flyers in 2010. Baltimore has two titles but both came from the Ravens. The Orioles did not do enough to really pad Baltimore’s resume.

#10 Kansas City 2 total titles in 4 total appearances
Not exactly a massive market but Kansas City has been a pretty solid sports city since 2000 when it comes to success. The forgotten team here will be the MLS club. The Kansas City Wizards, who is now Sporting KC, won the MLS Cup in 2000 and later made it to the 2004 final. 13 years later, Sporting KC left its mark with a MLS Cup victory. Then just this past year, the Royals made a shocking run to the World Series, eventually losing to San Francisco. The Kansas City NFL team, the Chiefs, could have boosted this city up the list some but they have had very little playoff success since 2000, not coming anywhere near the Super Bowl.

#9 St. Louis: 3 total titles in 5 total appearances
The St. Louis Rams were actually the first team to win a sports championship in the new millennium, taking home the 2000 Lombardi Trophy (which I ranked as my most exciting Super Bowl game of all time). The baseball team in St. Louis has done most of the heavy lifting though as the Cardinals have been among baseball’s best in the past 15 years. The Cards have two World Series titles from the 2006 and 2011 campaigns. This MLB team also came up just short in both 2004 and 2013, at the hands of the Boston Red Sox on each occasion. A little help from the Blues in the NHL could’ve pushed St. Louis above the next few cities on this list.

#8 San Francisco: 3 total titles in 5 total appearances
The San Francisco Giants have been baseball royalty over the past five years. In that time span, they have nailed down three World Series titles. San Francisco also made a trip to the Series in 2002, eventually losing in Game 7 to the Anaheim Angeles. The football team in San Francisco is pretty good as well. The 49ers came close for years to making it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995. They finally accomplished that goal in 2013, but came up short against the Baltimore Ravens. Close, but no cigar. That Super Bowl victory could have vaulted San Francisco past the number seven city on the list.

#7 Pittsburgh: 3 total titles in 5 total appearances
If this were an all-time list, Pittsburgh would have to be higher up on it. As it is only since the year of 2000, the city takes a drop. This has still been a successful city though when it comes to sports titles. The Steelers have earned two of them, in 2006 and 2009. They also came up a touchdown short in 2011 of winning another one against the Packers. On the ice, the Penguins have been one of the top teams in the NHL for some time now. They are perennial contenders and managed to make a Stanley Cup run in 2008, losing to the Detroit Red Wings, before returning the following year to beat those same Red Wings. Unfortunately, the Pirates haven’t been much help to the Pittsburgh cause in a while. Pittsburgh has been good, just not as good as…

#6 San Antonio: 4 total titles in 5 appearances
Amazing that a city with only one professional sports team can make the list. Well that’s what happens when the San Antonio Spurs are that one team. After a win in the NBA Finals in 1999, the Spurs watched as the Lakers won three consecutive titles to open the 21st century. The Spurs retaliated by winning three out of the next five. After an eight-year finals drought, San Antonio got another shot at a ring in 2013, eventually losing in Game 7 to the Heat. The rematch the following year though fell the other way giving the Spurs their fourth title since 2000.

That is the bottom half of the list. Check back in tomorrow for the top half of the countdown.

NFL Wildcard madness

The Wildcard round of the 2015 playoffs kicks off tomorrow meaning postseason professional football is back. Saturday’s games include the Cardinals versus the Panthers and the Steelers hosting the Ravens. Sunday features the Cowboys taking on the Lions and the Bengals visiting the Colts. The playoffs are unpredictable and can bring out the best in players. Nothing is a sure bet in the NFL, but I will do my best to predict who will win and who will go home.

I will start in Charlotte where the Panthers snuck into the playoffs with a losing record, only the second team ever to do so. That being said, Carolina is hot at the right time as the Panthers won four straight to make the postseason, which included a 34-3 thumping of division rival Atlanta to clinch the division. Arizona on the other hand, has limped into the postseason losing its last two games. The running game has stalled since Andre Ellington landed on injury reserve. The Cards are playing Ryan Lindley at quarterback as well having lost both Drew Stanton and Carson Palmer for the season. Bruce Arians still has the Cardinals alive though between creative play calling and an attacking defense that is capable of keeping Arizona in games, even when the offense sputters. This will be a defensive battle. Carolina caused three turnovers last week and should generate more at home against a shaky Lindley. I think the Panthers have too much momentum and Cam Newton can create just enough offense for Carolina to pull out the victory. Panthers win 24-14.

To the other NFC game, the Dallas Cowboys are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and this Cowboys team is definitely better suited to make a Super Bowl run. The Cowboys have one of the most versatile offenses in the NFL between Tony Romo, Demarco Murray and Dez Bryant. Dallas can beat you through the air or on the ground. Romo is having the best season of his career, as is Murray. These two will carry the Cowboys offense when it goes into battle with Detroit. The Lions’ defense has been one of the many surprises of this 2014 season. This unit finished second in total defense, third in scoring defense and tops in rush defense. Those are some elite numbers. The Lions front four grinds on offenses and generates hits on the quarterback. Eventually those start to take a toll. This game will rest more than anything else on Romo’s ability to improvise in the pocket and exploit Detroit’s secondary, which has only been average so far this year. Offensively, Matt Stafford and the Lions have looked out of sync. I do not expect too much from them, especially going on the road Stafford completion percentage on the road is thirteen percent worse than at home and his yards per attempt drops from 8.0 to 6.3. Detroit also has only one win against a .500 or better team this year. Look for Dallas to roll through a Detroit team still a year or two away from seriously contending. Cowboys win 31-17.

Switching over to the AFC, two young quarterbacks will duel in Indianapolis on Sunday when the Colts take on the Bengals. Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton lead their respective teams into a rematch of a Week 7 game. Indy won the regular season matchup between these two teams, blowing away Cincinnati 27-0. However, the Bengals ground attack has vastly improved since then with Jeremy Hill forming an excellent one-two punch with Giovani Bernard. The Bengals can wear down opposing defenses with its running game but this team’s playoff hopes still hinge on Dalton. Luck knows how to generate points and can get the Colts out to a lead in a hurry. If this game rely too heavily on Dalton’s arm, Cincy will lose. Dalton has never performed well in the playoffs and I do not see it starting now as a solid Colts’ pass rush and Vontae Davis roaming the secondary will cause him problems. For the Colts, Chuck Pagano has to be sure he gets Luck to avoid committing early mistakes. The former Stanford signal caller accounted for 28 turnovers this season. If Luck can hold on to the ball, this is Indy’s game to lose. Neither team is perfect but I trust Luck in the playoffs a lot more than I trust Dalton. I think the Colts win 34-21.

Every year, division rivals meet twice during the regular season, unless they matchup in the playoffs. Saturday night brings us one of the best division rivalries in league history as the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh for round 3. Pittsburgh will be without star running back LeVeon Bell meaning Ben Roethlisberger will have more pressure than ever to carry his team to victory. The toughest thing for the Steelers is how much Bell’s injury limits the play calling. Not only was Bell a top rusher, he was also an asset out of the backfield. Pittsburgh could have desperately used a bye week to get ready but Big Ben has shouldered the load before and he knows what is coming his way with a familiar foe. The Ravens are getting back to playing smash mouth football though which could make life difficult for Roethlisberger and company. Justin Forsett has been a revelation at tail back for Baltimore and taken a lot of pressure off Joe Flacco. The Ravens also have a potentially dynamic passing attack if the offense is firing on all cylinders. The Ravens defense finished tied for second this season in sacks with 49. Look for Baltimore to bring the house, as it knows Pittsburgh’s ground attack is weakened. This should be a great game but in the end, the Steelers’ other one-man show, Antonio Brown, should prove to be way too much for a reeling Ravens’ secondary. Steelers win round 3 by a score of 20-13.