At the beginning of this month I wrote an article titled It’s time to stop talking about Le’Veon Bell and start talking about James Conner. That wasn’t the original title of the article, as many headline readers didn’t see that the piece effectively spoke about why we should be talking about James Conner instead.
Now we’ve come full circle and Le’Veon Bell is headline news once again… and perhaps for the last time in 2018. Should Bell fail to report today, November 13th, he will be ineligible to play this season.
He will also forfeit his entire potential franchise tag earnings, which is in the ballpark of $14.5 million.
It’s hard to believe we’ve arrived at this point following discussions which had the Steelers offering the All-Pro running back a hefty contract.
Just to clarify:
Steelers' offer to Le'Veon Bell last year averaged $13.3 million per year.
Steelers' offer to him this year averaged $15 million per year.
But Bell does not believe he should be paid as a RB; he believes he should be paid as an elite offensive weapon.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 17, 2018
Bell and his agent stood firm that the team should up the ante, offering more money as well as guaranteeing a larger portion of his contract; something the Steelers never do outside of first-year bonuses. This saw Bell sit out of training camp while making some of his famously cryptic tweets. One of those included the date of the Week 1 matchup against the Cleveland Browns, a similar message as he posted in 2017 as a foreshadow to when he actually showed up.
Another of those posts came as the deadline to workout a new deal closed in July, cementing that Le’Veon would play under the franchise tag in 2018 with his future in flux until the 2019 league year began. Even with the two sides at a stalemate, it appeared Bell would not only be back, but wanted to be a Steeler for life:
to all my Steeler fans, my desire always has been to retire a Steeler...both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times...to the fans that had hope, I’m sorry we let youu down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date...
— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 16, 2018
The flip-flopping of rumors and reports as to when Bell would comeback has led us to this point where a nation, Steelers Nation, is divided on the issues surrounding their star running back. Some are for having Bell back on the roster, others will be glad to see him go.
And still others, like myself, are stuck in the middle of how the team should handle this situation with a world class talent.
Below are some arguments for, and against, having Bell come back to the ‘Burgh, be it by the end of the day today, or in 2019.
Against: Salary Cap
This is probably the biggest sticking point when anyone talks about Bell, so it’s logical to begin the arguments here. I’m going to say people are against paying Bell more money than previously reported that the Steelers offered.
That kind of money would not only handcuff the Steelers ability to retain their own homegrown players, but also make it next to impossible to sign free agents in the coming years. It would also be foolish spending, when you consider what other running backs around the league are being paid. Falcons RB Devonta Freeman and Bills RB LeSean McCoy were the trendsetters at around $8m per season, before the Rams and Cardinals gave new contracts to Todd Gurley and David Johnson this offseason.
Those contracts average $14.3m and $13m respectively for 2018, still shy of the mark which was reportedly offered to Bell.
Then consider that Super Bowl contenders Atlanta (pre-Freeman contract), New England, and Philadelphia all used a running back by committee approach, spending between $7m and $11m total on all of their running backs in those championship contending seasons.
That concept is rippling across the league and the Steelers may be best suited pocketing some of the savings from the $15m figure to spend on other positions and better solidify themselves as contenders themselves. (Rather than the alternative, where they weaken positions by having to go cheap, after ponying up big money for Bell!)
Bell will turn 27 in February… not exactly the age that a team should be looking to sign a running back to a four- or five-year long-term deal.
I’ll save the details here and get right to the point: running backs go into a severe decline around age 30, especially those with the type of workload Bell has had.
Therefore, this is an easy against argument if you believe Le’Veon will decline within the next 2-3 seasons.
Against: Off-Field Issues and Injuries
I can’t write this article without stating the obvious: Todd Gurley and David Johnson have not had the kind of off-field drama that Bell has had in his short career. Suspended multiple times for violations of league policies, all it takes is for one more mishap and the Steelers, or Bell’s future team, could be left holding an expensive contract without anything to show for it.
Then there’s the idea of Bell’s injuries, more or less with Father Time factored in, catching up to him. That could see the 30-year-old mark mentioned above pushed up by a year.
Definitely not an ideal situation for someone reportedly wanting $17m a year with a lot of guaranteed money.
Against: James Conner
The most obvious against argument when talking about a potential Bell return is the rise of James Conner. With Conner breaking more tackles than anyone in the league and setting historical records at the NFL and franchise levels, most people are ready to move on from Bell.
I tend to agree that Pittsburgh’s offense looks a lot better with Conner in the backfield this season, but how much of that success can also be attributed to a new offensive coordinator? We may never know…
What we do know is what the Steelers look like without Bell and it appears that future is bright. Very bright.
So bright, in fact, we may not want to know what it would look like to have Bell back! If you recall, when Bell was available to play, players such as LeGarrette Blount, DeAngelo Williams, and even James Conner himself, couldn't sniff playing time.
After seeing what the second-year back is capable of, I have to agree with those who don't want to see his playing time limited by Bell coming back.
For: James Conner
How can this also be a for statement?
Well, what happened when the Steelers didn’t have a suitable backup for Le’Veon? The team tanked in the postseason with Ben Tate signed off of the street and at other times looked lethargic depending on who was in the backfield.
If James Conner were to get hurt, all fingers are going to point the blame at the organization for not having a suitable Plan B. Others still believe that the Steelers could use a “two-headed monster” approach by having both players available.
However, as noted above with players such as DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh hasn’t used a multiple back approach since the days of Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore. Whether or not new OC Randy Fichtner would play his hand differently is anyone’s guess; but we can agree that having a thunder and lighting approach, by adding an All-Pro running back to the equation, could take the Steelers offense to new heights.
Against: Steelers Offense
On the contrary, adding Bell to the Steelers current schemes could drag the offense down. They’re currently the top team in the NFL in red zone scoring (78.57%) versus finishing 18th overall (53.03%) in 2017.
How much of that is attributed to Conner in place of Bell at the goal line and how much of that is due to Fichtner? How much of Bell's production can also be credited to a solid Steelers offensive line? Is Bell a product of the system?
Again, we may never get the answers, but it's something worth pondering over with Bell's price tag.
How do you get Conner and Bell on the field at the same time?
Split Bell out wide: somewhere he was seen often during the Todd Haley era of the Steelers offense.
A more than capable receiver, Bell could continue to stack on his usual second-place receiving stats among the team.
Bell wants to be paid like a “Wide Receiver 2”.
Bell used to be the team’s WR2 and even climbed the ranks of the NFL in receptions. However, with the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster and a healthy Vance McDonald, Bell may not even be the team’s second or third option in the passing game anymore.
Against: Locker Room Distraction
The final piece of the puzzle is the drama that has come along this entire process. Verified by the fact I’m writing this article and every known person in sports media is discussing Bell today, shows just how much the chatter would continue past this point if he were to return.
Then there’s the comments back-and-forth by his teammates: would they welcome Bell back after missing half of the season?
What would happen if Bell returns, takes snaps from Conner, and doesn’t play well?
The circus that would ensue is more than enough for me to say pass. Yet, it’s difficult to say no to a player the caliber of Bell. For the cost-savings he’s already provided the team by not playing thus far this season, no other team in the NFL would be able to improve their roster this dramatically at this time of the season as the Steelers would be adding Bell.
It doesn’t appear that will happen, now or in the future, but it’s still an intriguing idea.