I really want to cut to the chase with all of the recent rumors surrounding a potential reunion between the Pittsburgh Steelers and their former running back Le’Veon Bell: they are simply nothing more than rumors.
I understand that the Steelers running game wasn’t particularly strong last season. However, the offense had a number of problems which all stem from losing their future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the second week of the season.
I understand the sentimental reasons for wanting to kiss and make up with bell, and despite his nice gesture of wearing black and gold in the next to last game of the season while playing for the Steelers opponent I don’t see a reunion on the horizon.
Chief among my concerns is bringing back a former player who played at a peak level many years ago might not change the team’s fortunes. However, there are several more mitigating factors as to why Bell’s return isn’t likely: at least for now.
Did we forget about the holdouts?
The first thing that comes to mind with mending any relationship is how did the two parties leave things?
For the Steelers, they had offered Bell generous contracts, which turned out to be more money than he wound up signing for with the New York Jets last offseason.
For Bell, well, it’s a bit more complicated. While the only recourse for a player unhappy with his contract situation is to sit out, it’s the way Bell held the Steelers organization hostage – over two offseasons, with little to no contact or mutter of when, where, or if he would return.
Most felt he would come back in 2017, and he did: but he also waited until the first week of the regular season and obviously wasn’t up to snuff playing in the first few games of the season.
But when Bell decided to just sit out all of 2018 after the Steelers franchise tagged him a second time, it was the way he teased jet skiing in warm weather while his brothers on the team worked their hind-ends off in training camp that may have left a sour taste in some people’s mouths.
Bell continued teasing a return, up until the Week 9 deadline came and went.
Bell’s entire justification for this behavior? Wanting to “reset” the running back market. Yet, it’s estimated he lost close to $20 million by playing hardball with the team.
In Steelers proposal to Bell at the end of 19 season he would’ve pocketed 33M. In deal he got he will be at 14.5. Behind by almost $20M. This may be the worst contract decision we have ever seen a player make, and it should’ve been obvious to him and his agent.
— Joe Banner (@JoeBanner13) March 14, 2019
Would the Steelers play ball again? It’s hard to say, but rumors were swirling that they inquired about acquiring Bell from the Jets before last season’s trade deadline – which is the rumor that another rumor, Bell returning to Pittsburgh, is founded on.
If the first rumor is correct, then perhaps there’s no hard feeling in the Steelers front office: but there could be other reasons a reunion this season is unlikely to happen.
The Jets financial side of things
Le'Veon Bell signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets last offseason. $19 million of that contract is guaranteed with various roster bonuses built-in.
The number we want to look at is Bell’s dead money: that is the amount of cash that the Jets would eat by releasing him outright and getting nothing in return.
I find it highly unlikely that New York would be willing to swallow $19 million of salary with no return.
On the other hand, I’m not sure what the Steelers could give the Jets if a trade were discussed, as previously rumored. Pittsburgh currently has five draft picks in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft, with no selections in the first or fifth rounds.
Coincidentally, they should receive a high compensatory pick, projected to be a third rounder, for losing Bell in the first place. While that pick can now be traded under recent rule changes in the league, I would speculate that “salary dump” trades such as this one would involve late round, conditional picks.
The Steelers trade with the 49ers for Vance McDonald in 2017 involved a swap of Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick in 2018 for San Francisco’s fifth round pick that year and the tight end.
Brock Osweiler, who had a huge four-year, $72 million contract with the Houston Texans, was shipped to Cleveland with a sixth-round pick and a future second-rounder in exchange for the Browns fourth-round selection. (Basically, the Browns bought some draft picks from the Texans, who were then given cap relief for their bad deal.)
Unfortunately, I don’t see this being the same type of situation in the Steel City for one main reason…
The Steelers financial side of things
With the third-highest salary at his position in the entire league, it’s unlikely the Steelers could afford Bell’s services. They currently sit at $1.5 million in cap room to operate with, which is not even enough to sign this year’s draft picks.
Aside from that, the team also has to address several priority free agents, such as Bud Dupree, making it a low possibility that they could add Bell by trade or sign him, in the event the Jets part ways with the running back.
The Steelers current depth chart
The injury-prone Conner is likely to enter 2020 still as the starter, but he will be looking over his shoulder at Snell during a contract year. The only way I see the Steelers making a deal with Conner is if it’s a low-cost/risk scenario.
Otherwise Conner could walk in 2021.
That’s okay, because running backs often make their jump in the NFL during the second season, which Snell is entering. As one of the most prolific runners in SEC history, the pro learning curve may be out of the way and a healthy Snell should compete for snaps in the Steelers offense this season.
If both Conner and Snell are healthy and receiving playing time, where would that leave Jaylen Samuels? He would likely still be a third-down/passing situation back, which leaves little room on the depth chart for a team that typically carries a maximum of three running backs on their active 53-man roster.
Furthermore, would you take snaps away from any of these players if they were healthy and assume Bell’s contract liabilities knowing what you know about the Steelers financial situation this season?
I think that answer is an easy one, especially if you would like to see if Snell can first develop into playing a larger role in the Steelers offense.
Risk of injury or suspensions
This hasn't been a concern of anyone's for some time, but should still be a determining factor in wanting to pay the large sum of money due to Bell.
During his time in Pittsburgh Bell missed a number of games due to injuries and suspensions: 3 in his rookie season, a critical playoff loss at home when he was placed on IR to end his sophomore year, ten games in 2015, and four games in 2016, before being lost in the first quarter of the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.
That’s a lot of time away for a workhorse back making among the most money in the league, but there’s an asterisk that comes along with it too: Le’Veon Bell has been the subject of several run-in’s with the NFL and it’s drug testing policies. While news has been quiet on that front for some time, there’s no doubt his suitors are taking another mishap into consideration when planning their franchise’s future around the multiple-time All-Pro.
While you can see I’m not entirely ruling out an eventual Steelers and Le’Veon Bell reunion, I am near certain that 2020 is not the year we will see the running back in black and gold. Cap implications with his current team and the Steelers, as well as a stocked depth chart make it difficult for a deal to get done.
Instead, this speculated move is best tabled for 2021 when it’s more likely that all parties could be more eager, and able, to make the suggested moves for a reunion to become a reality.