On Sunday morning, as many of you have already heard, ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke news that the Steelers are now listening to offers for embattled superstar Running Back, Le’Veon Bell. Is this a move that the Jets should make? The more I think about it, the more I feel stuck on the fence. I don’t think this is as black and white, yes or no, as some make it out to be.
First, the question of cost must be addressed. What would it take to convince Pittsburgh to trade a superstar in-conference? What would the Jets have to pay Bell to end his holdout? The second question is easier to answer. Right now, on his second Franchise tag, Bell would be making $14.5M this year. Bell Reportedly turned down the Steelers offer for $14.5M per year over 5 years already, and reports have stated that he wants $17M per year. Now, $14.5M would top Todd Gurley’s $14.375M AAV, and really is a fair deal. $17M AAV is an astronomical number in its own right, let alone for a Running Back, but here’s the thing- Is Bell more than a RB? Bell defends his salary demands by insisting that he not merely a Running Back, but an offensive weapon. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, he can split out wide and play WR in some formations, and he’s a threat to score on any play from anywhere on the field. That is on top of his ability as a pure Running Back, which he’s arguably the best in the NFL. So, should he be valued as more than a true RB? Or is a RB an RB no matter what? If you’re in the camp of him being a special player that transcends the positional value, it’s justifiable to pay him more closely to what he demands. In my opinion, he is more than just a Running Back, and I don’t take issue with him wanting to be paid as such. I think $17M is still absurd, but I think $15.5M to $16M AAV is fair for what he brings to the table. I think you can negotiate him down from the $17M number he has in his heads with fair arguments citing his marijuana suspensions and knee injury history.
The question that remains now is how do you pry him from Pittsburgh? You would have to assume Pittsburgh is looking for draft compensation, so what do you give up? Remember, Jets do not have a 2nd round pick this year, which hurts them. Do you give up a first round pick for a player with Bell’s injury history? Do you try to offer multiple mid rounds picks to avoid giving up a premium 1st rounder? This depends on what other teams are offering. The Jets are still building a team, is trading away picks really what you want to do here? Teams like Green Bay in win now mode might be willing to overpay to bolster a Super Bowl run. If I am the Jets, I’m not willing to get into a bidding war and to mortgage my future for a non-QB, especially one that does not protect our current young QBs blindside or go after other team’s QBs. That’s what made the Khalil Mack pursuit different, Mack directly affects QB play, Bell doesn’t. Mack is worth selling the farm because of what he can do by himself, Bell needs a supporting cast of an OL that blocks for him and a QB that can both get him the ball in space and also threaten defenses enough to the point they don’t stack the box. Now, if the rest of the league feels the same way and Bell’s market isn’t so strong, maybe the Jets offer a 2020 2nd round pick for him and a player like Cannon or McGuire or what have you and get lucky. Bottom-line, if I’m the Jets, I am not overpaying in trade value for Bell, it is not worth it in my opinion. I’ll overpay in contract value, but not in trade assets. So in my book, I’m valuing Bell as $16M AAV plus a 2nd and 5th round pick. If The Jets give that up, or something comparable to it, I’m okay with from a fair value point of view.
Now that I’ve determined a value that I feel comfortable with for Bell, the question is, is it the right move for the franchise? Does this move help them get closer to winning a Super Bowl in the next few years? On one hand, you’d have to say of course. Anytime you add an elite offensive playmaker, it will improve your chances of winning in every game he plays. Bell is still only 26 years old, so if you sign him to a 4 year/$64M deal, you get him for most of his prime. No one will dispute that he makes the team better right away. Now, are there risks? Yes, he’s already served two separate drug-related suspensions and he’s torn his MCL and severely hyper extended his knee in the past. The hold out has rubbed some people the wrong way, but that doesn’t bother me. Given his injury history, I think he’s in the right to sit out on his 2nd franchise tag and want a guaranteed contract. Personally, I’m okay with the risks he presents because his talent is so transcendent. The big question for me is not whether or not he will improve the team today, that much is obvious. The question is whether or not the move to acquire Bell hurts their ability to fill more important holes in the roster. Going into the 2019 season, this team needs an EDGE rusher, Left Tackle, a Guard (maybe two), two to three CBs, and maybe a Center. These are not just positions it’d be nice to upgrade, these are flat-out needs if they want to be competitive. Does giving up picks and a huge chunk of cap space for one player really make sense for the long term direction of this team? Bell is truly elite, but I do not feel that his presence makes up for a lack of talent across the board at other positions.
Another part to look at when deciding if a move for Bell is smart is too look at how much does he really improve our chances at winning a Super Bowl? Think about it, Bell has been on a team with a Hall of Fame QB and a Hall of Fame WR for the past 4 years. In that time, what have the Steelers done? They’ve won 3 playoff games in 4 years, including zero Super Bowls. If Bell couldn’t win a Super Bowl with the Steelers talent around him, why would he able to do it here with our holes? In fact, the only team to win a Super Bowl with a top 5 paid RB in the NFL in the past decade was the 2014 Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch. In the past decade, only 4 of the 20 teams to reach the Super Bowl have had a Running Back paid in the top 5 of his position (Stewart in CAR – 2016, Lynch in SEA – 2014 and 2015, and Edgerrin James in ARI – 2009) (Credit to Michael Nania for that data). So how important are Running Backs to Super Bowl winning teams in actuality? Data would say "not very", you can win a Super Bowl with an average player at RB, or better yet, with multiple role players at RB that are good at different things.
One last thing to consider- is a player like Le’Veon Bell all that rare? On the surface: yes. Le’Veon is in a class of his own, but going deeper, is it really that hard to find an elite Running Back in the NFL? I don’t think it is. With good scouting, you can find a great Running Back at any poinyt in the draft, meaning you don’t have to spend a premium draft pick on one AND you don’t have to break the bank for one either. Don’t believe me? Look at some of elite backs in this league: Bell (2nd Round, 2013), Freeman (4th Round, 2014), Hunt (3rd Round, 2017), Kamara (3rd Round, 2017), Howard (5th round, 2016), Johnson (3rd Round, 2015), Ajayi (5th Round, 2015)- and that’s just the pro bowlers, there are plenty more very good backs taken late or undrafted that would be more than serviceable for a Super Bowl winning team.
So all in all, I think I’m out on a move to acquire Le’Veon Bell. I don’t think it’s really all that worth it, and I don’t think it propels us to a Super Bowl. Yes, it would be fun, and flashy, and exciting, but at the end of the day, I think that there are more important priorities for this team and Running back alone does not fix our problems. If they do swing a trade, I’ll try to get behind hit, but it’s not the move I would make.