The fallout between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell failing to reach a long-term contract may have started some premature speculation about the running back’s future beyond the 2018 season. However, it’s speculation that’s worth discussing.
Sports Illustrated NFL writer Robert Klemko was on the Jim Rome Show Tuesday to discuss the situation between Pittsburgh and Bell. Klemko believes the relationship between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell is broken and that 2018 will be his last year in a Steelers uniform.
He even went so far as to speculate that Bell could incur an early ankle injury that would keep him out the first half of the season...
While that’s some fairly strong speculation, one has to wonder: would the Steelers be alright without their workhorse in the backfield?
I believe they will and here are some reasons why.
I’ll elaborate on this in a future article but simply stated: NFL teams aren’t spending money at the running back position. Period.
The second-highest paid back in the league right now is Atlanta Falcon Devonta Freeman. Freeman will earn a base salary of $8.2 million but only has a $2 million base and $5 million cap hit in 2018.
That’s far from the reported $14-15m per year Bell was offered, and lightyears away from the $17m he was reportedly seeking.
Then consider that the Falcons are only a year removed from playing in the Super Bowl with a duo featuring Freeman, a fourth-round draft pick in 2014, and Tevin Coleman, a third-round pick in 2015. The Falcons were able to go cheap on running backs and spend their salary cap at other positions to become a contender.
Their total cap hit? $7,712,145 million.
Then, of course, there’s the New England Patriots, who featured a backfield with Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, and James White. Long a team who has used the committee approach, the Patriots had roughly $11m tied up in their running backs.
The common link between all of those groups? They’re still largely successful without using a workhorse back. Despite only having two 100-yard-plus rushing games in 2016, Freeman still eclipsed 1,000 total yards in 2016. Blount, who played for the Patriots in 2016, ran for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns. He would lead the Eagles in rushing last season with only 766 yards… and two rushing touchdowns.
Dion Lewis failed to reach 1,000 yards in 2017, but the Patriots backfield still put up 16 rushing touchdowns without Blount.
Thus, the dilemma: is it worth spending so much on Le’Veon Bell when other teams are shying away from bell cow backfields and going cheap on the position overall? And could the Steelers become a copycat for this concept?
I believe they already are.
Current Depth Chart
It’s pretty outlandish to think that Bell would fake an injury just to rake in his guaranteed money playing on the franchise tag. First, it wouldn’t be a good business decision for a player who “wants to be a Steeler for life” nor for a player who could be interviewing with other teams when free agency begins in 2019.
But say Bell wasn’t around either this season or next: how does the Steelers depth chart stack up?
First, they drafted Pitt running back James Conner last season to be Bell’s primary backup. When Conner was injured late last season, the team brought in veteran Stevan Ridley. Formerly part of a previous Patriots committee backfield, Ridley ran for 108 yards and a touchdown playing in only two games.
The Steelers also added a versatile H-back style player by drafting NC State’s Jaylen Samuels.
The trio appears to be part of a future without Le’Veon Bell and could be more than capable. The reason I’m optimistic is that this isn’t the first time that the Steelers have had to make a go of it without Bell, nor would it be the first time in Mike Tomlin’s coaching tenure that they’ve used a committee of running backs.
Past Running Back Performance
Does anyone remember DeAngelo Williams? Yes, that Williams, who backed up Le’Veon Bell in 2015 and 2016 to the tune of 1,250 rushing yards, 58 catches for 485 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns in 25 games (14 starts).
The Steelers offensive line is so ridiculous it’s not even funny. It’s the main reason, along with star role players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, that you have to believe any capable back, or backs, would have success running the ball.
Many of us may have forgotten, but it wasn’t too long ago the Steelers didn’t have Bell or Williams in the postseason. Rolling with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the backfield, the Steelers steamrolled the Bengals in the playoffs to the tune of 167 rushing yards. (44 of those came off of a Martavis Bryant carry, but both backs still racked up 123 yards on the ground.)
A week later, the pair of backs put up 85 in a painful loss to the Denver Broncos.
Still, it shows what can be done even with those players who are considered marginal when compared with Bell.
Yet, that season wasn’t the only time the Steelers used a committee. I’m sure we can forget about the 2012 season, where just about everything was awful in an 8-8 season. What we can’t forget is the last time the black and gold lifted a Lombardi trophy.
The running backs that year were Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore. Parker contributed 791 rushing yards to Moore’s 588, with each adding five touchdowns on the ground each. Moore also added 320 receiving yards on 40 receptions and another touchdown.
The combination worked then, so it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t work in the near future utilizing Conner and/or Ridley in a more traditional running back mold, with Samuels holding down the third down duties much like Moore did in ’08.
Future picks and current contracts
Without getting too in-depth on this, the Steelers shouldn’t have much to worry about in 2018 unless something does happen to Le’Veon Bell. They’re not going to pay Bell $14.5m to have him sit, especially when he’s in his prime.
Beyond 2018 could be a different story. If Robert Klemko is correct and the two parties part ways, the Steelers will already know by then if they can rely on Conner, Samuels, and an aging Ridley. A draft pick in 2019 could yield an Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt that could easily ease the sting of losing the All-Pro Bell.
If they end up with a third-round bust like Dri Archer instead, there’s still 2020, where Pittsburgh could receive a compensatory draft pick for losing Bell via free agency, provided, they don’t add any key free agents who would match the outgoing back’s value.
Since Bell is seeking almost twice as much as the next highest-paid running back, and the Steelers have little cap space, it’s nearly a given that they get a comp pick.
That looks like a bright future of insurance plans for the Steelers if Bell is no longer in a black and gold jersey come 2019.