Note: This article was originally posted in January as Le’Veon Bell was poised to enter free agency. Some things have changed since then, but almost all of the main points about Bell’s skills and value are unchanged.
The Jets are going to have a lot of money to spend in free agency this year. The exact amount of cap space the team will have is unknown at this point because we don’t even know what the 2018 salary cap is yet. No matter the final number, the Jets project to have among the most space in the league to shop for free agents.
One of the most coveted free agents to be is Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. NFL.com rates him as the fourth best free agent of 2018 and the top player who isn’t a quarterback.
As with most high end projected free agents, there is no guarantee Bell will even be available. The Steelers are paying $12.1 million this year after putting the franchise tag on Bell last spring. If they were willing to do that, they might be willing to pay a $14.5 million pricetag this year to franchise him a second time. Bell has so little leverage in the situation that this week he actually threatened to retire if tagged again. I’ll believe a guy is willing to leave $14.5 million on the table when I see it.
Sometimes teams are willing to forego the franchise tag and let valuable players walk away so there is a chance Bell hits the open market. Should the Jets make a big push for him if he does? Let’s take a look.
Bell is an elite back.
Le’Veon Bell was the highest paid running back in the league in 2017 with that $12.1 million cap hit. It is difficult to argue against his productivity. The back has 5,336 rushing yards since entering the league in 2013, which rates as third most in that span behind only LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray.
His patience is a virtue.
Certain players in the NFL become synonymous with one particular ability or trait. When you think of Marshawn Lynch, physical running probably comes to mind. Earl Thomas is ballhawking. Jay Cutler is arm strength. Recent Jets have shown sometimes it can be a negative trait that stands. Chad Pennington was known as the NFL’s weak armed quarterback, and Braylon Edwards was the NFL’s posterboy for dropped passes.
Le’Veon Bell has become one of these guys. He is now the posterboy for patient running. Whenever you watch an NFL or college game, his name inevitably comes up when a back waits for a hole to open and then breaks a nice gain. Odds are the announcer will talk about how the back looked like Le’Veon Bell by showing such patience.
There isn’t much doubt that his willingness to wait in the backfield for holes to open is a primary reason he has become one of the league’s premier runners.
Bell is second to none at understanding his blocking scheme and waiting for help to arrive to spring him.
You aren’t getting him for running back money.
Few would question whether Bell deserves to be compensated like one of the top paid backs in the league, but he doesn’t want to be paid just like a top back. It is one of the biggest reasons the Steelers have been unable to strike a long-term deal with him as we found out last summer.
Ike Taylor on @NFLTotalAccess says Le'Veon Bell told him he wants to be paid as No. 1 RB PLUS a No. 2 WR (his 75 rec were 2nd most for PIT)— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) July 19, 2017
There’s a reason you aren’t getting him for running back money; you’re getting more than a running back.
Bell was also second in receptions for the Steelers in 2017. He was as well in 2014. The only time in the last four years he wasn’t in the top two was in 2015, when he was limited to six games.
I think this speaks to how overly rigid thinking is when it comes to the idea of value in the NFL. Sometimes we get hung up on position designation rather than the role somebody plays. If you look at a printout of the Steelers roster, Bell is listed as a running back, but he is so much more to them.
This is not the guy with the impact of the typical back in the passing game. He finished second in the league in receiving yards among running backs last year and fourth this year according to PFF.
The clearest path to winning in the NFL involves having a franchise quarterback. A team needs a certain number of successful plays to win games, and a franchise quarterback does more to create them than any player on the field. He can evade pressure or stand tall in the pocket when his protection breaks down. He can put the ball on the money into tight windows.
You typically need a franchise quarterback to do those things, but an ideal offense takes some of the load off the quarterback and makes his job easier.
Ben Roethlisberger is certainly capable of carrying the load when he needs to, but Bell is a nice safety blanket who takes a good chunk of the playmaking load off Roethlisberger’s plate. Bell has a lot of value simply as a runner. Ben can simply hand the ball off to get a certain percentage of the big plays the Steelers need to win.
Bell’s value as a receiver is also large, however.
This is a 14 yard gain, but it didn’t require Roethisberger to make a complex read or deliver a ball with pinpoint precision into the tight window that many 14 yard passing plays require.
This is a 42 yard gain, but it didn’t require Roethlisberger to stare down a pass rush and deliver a perfect pass down the sideline with great touch.
Plays like these are a quarterback’s best friend. They fill up the stat line yet have a low degree of difficulty. They essentially utilize Bell’s skills as a running back in another aspect of the ball. Dump him the ball, and the explosive back has a chance to make a play. When you add plays like this (and the easy completions Antonio Brown’s route running) to the difficult big plays Roethlisberger CAN make, you see why the Steelers offense is so explosive.
He isn’t just a good receiving back; he’s a running back-receiver hybrid
If that was all Bell added as a receiver, he would be adding a lot of value to the passing game. You might think back to Chris Ivory’s Jets career. When he first was acquired, Ivory looked allergic to catching the football. Over the course of his three years tenure, he developed as a pass catcher and became a guy the Jets could use on screens and dumpoffs. This increased his value.
Bell gives you those plays, but he provides so much more in the receiving game.
He beats people with his route running.
Prior to his scary injury this year, Ryan Shazier, a teammate who practiced against Bell every day, wrote in The Players’ Tribune about what sets Bell apart from other backs.
He’s not just a running back, though. He’s a wide receiver and a running back. Le’Veon is going to get his rushing yards, but if you start stacking up the box, he’ll motion out of you and start playing receiver. But he’s not a decoy — he’s killing you out there. There’s only one other back who can do that, and that’s David Johnson. Any other running back motions out? As a defense you’re thinking: O.K., cool. But you’re not hurting us. Most linebackers will just jam the running back at the line and they’re done. But you’re not jamming those guys. Those two can hurt you like any top slot receiver.
I can’t stress enough how much this matters. All week long, we watch film for like three or four hours a day. By the time Sunday rolls around, no matter how creative a team tries to get, you pretty much know the sets. You know what they like to run. But if you can flex out a guy like Le’Veon or DJ on the fly? It puts you on the backfoot.
There is a striking degree of sophistication within his receiving game. Bell is the type of back who you can split wide or stick in the slot and still feature in the passing game.
This was a play where Bell was double teamed out of the slot. One defender was responsible for him if he went left.
Another was responsible if he went right.
Bell still managed to find the soft spot in the defense.
This might not look like anything special, but it is a 5 yard gain on first down on a spot of the field where yards are hard to come by. It is even tougher when you have to find an open spot against two defenders.
Cris Collinsworth, who called that game for NBC was left impressed. After that play he said:
Not only does Le’Veon Bell understand the running game, he gets the passing game. He understands where those little voids in the zones are, and you can tell how much Ben trusts him just running routes.
Just like those checkdowns and dumpoffs, lining Bell up as a wide receiver is another way of making a quarterback’s life easy.
The first thing flexing Bell out does is force a defense to tip its coverage.
On this play, there was a safety across from Bell. That safety in lined up in a spot usually reserved for an outside cornerback. This is a dead giveaway that it is man coverage. A safety usually isn’t lined up there. Safeties cover backs in man coverage. The defense has to be in man.
As Shazier mentioned, Bell’s prowess as a route runner commands respect so there is a big cushion he has to work with.
He has given so much cushion that he essentially has no way to stop Bell on a slant. Bell has a clear path on his route, and Roethlisberger will have an easy window.
Roethlisberger knows all of this. He knows he is against man coverage. He sees the cushion Bell has to operate with. He also knows a safety isn’t in his comfort zone as an outside corner, while Bell is comfortable running receiver routes. This is an easy completion created by Bell’s versatility that turns into a touchdown.
His route running skills add extra dimensions to the playbook.
These cushions his route running commands create opportunities to get him the ball in space when he is split out wide.
Again, this play might not blow you away, but it was a 6 yard gain on third and 4. It was a drive extender created in part by the respect Bell commands. The linebacker is afraid of getting beaten down the field. He leaves such a huge cushion that Bell has plenty of space to operate on a quick pass.
When you can make run effective routes as a receiver out of the slot...
...you can start tricking opponents by building in disguised plays that look similar.
One thing seems clear. Classifying Bell purely as a running back doesn’t adequately quantify what he brings to the table. He’s a complete offensive weapon who helps a team both on the ground and as a wide receiver.
Does he provide so much that he fills the role of both elite running back and number two wide receiver, though?
Is Bell a number two receiver?
Let’s look at his production. His ascent began in 2014, and he was limited to six games in 2015 so we will look at where he rated in major statistical categories for both the team and the league in general in 2014, 2016, and 2017. On the team, you would expect the number two receiver to rate second. In the league, you would expect him to rate somewhere between 33 and 64.
Steelers reception leaders
Steelers receiving yards
Steelers receiving touchdowns
Steelers clutch catches (receptions on third or fourth down that resulted in a first down)
NFL reception leaders
NFL receiving yards
NFL receiving TDs
NFL clutch catches (receptions on third or fourth down that resulted in a first down)
NFL yards per reception
People critical of the idea Bell is both a running back and a number two receiver tend to point to the yards per reception number being so low. I think his average reception being so low speaks to his usage, however.
Bell is split out wide and put into the slot more than your typical back. He produces more as a receiver than most backs. That said, wide receivers almost never line up in the backfield, while Bell does quite a bit. Because of that, many of his catches are simple checkdowns where nothing is there, and there is little he can do with it.
Plays like this not only drive down his yards per reception, but they also drive up his reception totals. Receptions are one of the few areas where Bell stacks up as a number two receiver, but there clearly are some empty calories in those stats.
It speaks to a simple truth. You can’t be a back and a full-time number two receiver. Number two receivers line up outside and make big plays by attacking the defense down the field. Bell doesn’t do this enough to be considered a legitimate number two guy. It’s also why his touchdown totals are so low. You can’t line up in the backfield that much and be a red zone threat.
When all of these factors are considered one conclusion is obvious, you can’t line up in the backfield that much and be considered a number two wide receiver.
Last year Bill Barnwell looked at the argument for Bell as a number two and reached a conclusion I liked. Barnwell hypothesized that in addition to being a top tier running back, Bell is essentially a quality slot receiver. That comparison works. Slot guys aren’t the most dangerous parts of a passing attack, but they can be important role players who help situationally. Two stats where Bell stacks up relatively well are total receiving yards and clutch catches. Even if he isn’t a focal point of a passing game, a part-time receiver registering multiple seasons in the top 70 in the league in receiving yards and clutch catches is a valuable weapon for a passing attack.
Whether or not he is a number two receiver; Bell actually wants to be paid more than a combination of an elite back and a number two receiver.
At any rate, the argument might be moot. His camp might be stating they want compensation in line with what an elite back and a number two receiver make combined, but he was already offered that by the Steelers.
Last summer Pittsburgh offered Bell a five year deal with a $12 million annual value, and he rejected it.
LeSean McCoy currently has the richest long-term deal for running backs in the NFL. It it worth $8.2 million per year. The salary for a median number two receiver (48th highest; Eric Decker) is $4 million. Add them together, and you get almost the same amount to the dollar as the deal the Steelers offered Bell. He turned that down.
Bell doesn’t seem to want just a combination of elite back and middle of the road second receiver money. He seems to want more, even though his argument he is a number two type receiver is dicey to begin with.
There is a case to be made for the Jets to pursue Bell, even if they need to overpay him.
The Jets are sorely lacking in playmakers. This is a team sorely in need of top end, game-changing talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
The team will also likely strongly consider selecting a rookie quarterback early in the Draft. Rookie signal callers need more support than anybody. It isn’t an easy transition. Few are equipped to come in and be the focal point of an offense on day one.
Bell is the type of player who could be a rookie quarterback’s best friend. Just handing him the ball produces a lot of offense, and the way he impacts the passing game displayed above can be a big help for a rookie. It is a lot easier for a quarterback to check down rather than make a risky throw if he knows the back can take it for a long gain. The way Bell forces defenses to tip coverage can also help a young signal caller decipher the complicated defensive looks he is seeing for the first time.
Overpaying for average players in free agency is a cap killing mistake. It’s like being at the supermarket and paying a lot of money for an item when you could just walk to the next aisle and get the same item for half price. It is a little different when you are overpaying for premium talent. If a player maintains his top level play, it tends to be worth the price because of the way elite players elevate others. Even if Bell isn’t really a top back and a number two receiver rolled into one, you could make the case he is worth paying that kind of money provided he maintains his level of play.
There are a number of red flags with Bell that suggest pursuing him would be a bad idea.
I’d like to point out the, “provided he maintains his level of play,” part is really, really important. As the Darrelle Revis and Muhammad Wilkerson contracts have taught us, these megadeals for star players can turn into albatrosses quickly if the player’s performance falls off a cliff.
Players tend to get paid for past performance, but they should be paid based on how they will perform in the future. The player Bell has been the last four years is worth a big contract. The player Bell will be after this season might not be.
Red Flag #1: Bell has missed 18 of 80 games in his career.
As the old saying goes, the best ability is availability. Bell has not been available for the equivalent of more than one of his five full seasons.
A bunch of the missed time came from a torn MCL in 2015. Injuries happen in the game, especially when you have the ball and get tackled a lot. Bell has fully recovered from that injury.
What is more concerning are the seven games missed from two separate suspensions. Bell is now potentially one incident away from potentially facing a very long suspension. If you are giving out a big contract, you have to be able to trust that the recipient will be on the field. There has to be some degree of concern in Bell’s case from that standpoint. If you have gotten yourself suspended twice, how likely is a third time?
Red Flag #2: He already has a lot of wear and tear.
Hits add up for running backs. Every player is different, but number crunching suggests running backs tend to decline after 1,800 carries. Even though he has only been in the league five years and missed so many games, Bell already has 1,229 regular season carries. And that probably sells the situation short.
This is an instance where his heavy use as a receiver might work against him. Bell has 312 receptions. Those don’t count on his total of career rushes, but the hits were absorbed by his body. He also has 65 carries in the postseason along with 3 receptions.
Bell additionally had a heavy usage rate in college. The 382 carries he got in 2012 at Michigan State was the fourth biggest single-season workload at the college level in the last two decades and 13th biggest ever. Again, those carries don’t count against his NFL rushing stats, but the hits his body took do.
It is worth pointing out that every NFL back did carry the ball in college and does have NFL receptions so Bell is not unique in having wear and tear beyond his carry total. With that said, Bell’s high usage rate in college and a receiver suggest he has more miles on his odometer than the typical NFL back with 1,229 carries, which could put him closer to that 1,800 decline threshold than it might appear on paper.
Red Flag #3: There is already evidence of a possible decline.
Bell has put up a high quality season in 2017, but he has quietly dropped off quite a bit in efficiency. His average yards per carry fell from 4.9 all the way to 4.0.
Average per rush is dependent on a number of factors. It could simply be a factor of less effective blocking. Digging a little deeper, however, shows that Bell’s average yards after contact fell from 3.01 (5th best in the NFL) in 2016 to 2.6 (14th best in the NFL) in 2017.
Bell is an immense talent. He changes an offense for the better in numerous and immense ways. The question is how long he will continue to do so. I personally think the red flags are concerning enough to make a big investment too risky, but some team likely will not.
Do you think that team should be the Jets?