By: Rajan Nanavati
Before anything gets misconstrued, let’s get one thing straight: Le’Veon Bell is a hell of a running back.
While the armchair quarterbacks and fantasy football aficionados gush over the dual-threat ability of guys like Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, and/or Saquon Barkley, let’s not forget that Bell has had over 1,880 yards from scrimmage in three of the last four seasons he’s played, including over 2,200 yards from scrimmage in 2014.
That’s why Bell thought he could make what amounted to a $14.5 million bet. Bell would refuse to sign the one-year franchise tag offer (constituting the aforementioned amount), and either twist the proverbial arm of the Steelers into giving him the long-term deal that he felt he deserved, or hold out as long as he could – even if it meant leaving money on the table – until Pittsburgh caved, one way or another.
The problem is, Pittsburgh never caved.
Bell’s problem is two-fold. For one, as mentioned, Bell believed that his holdout could impact the Steelers’ offense enough to where they’d be suffering on the field without him, thereby justifying accepting his demands.
Ironically, it’s exactly the opposite. The Steelers are currently 4th in the NFL in total offense (averaging over 419 yards per game) and 4th in points scored per game (31). Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is having a vintage season, sitting at fourth place in the NFL in total passing yards and tied for fourth in touchdown passes. Wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJuSmith-Schuster are both on pace to finish with more than 1,200 yards receiving.
Running back James Conner, whom the Steelers’ had to have drafted in 2017 with the thought of being an heir-apparent to Bell in the back of their collective minds? He sits 3rd in the NFL in rushing yards, and is on pace to run for 1,370 yards this year, which would eclipse Bell’s career-high of 1,361 yards. Conner is also on pace to finish with 688 receiving yards, which would’ve been the second-highest total of Bell’s career. Further, Conner already has 10 rushing touchdowns – through only nine games – which is a total Bell never reached.
Perhaps more importantly, as has been discussed many times: NFL teams simply don’t value the running back position like they used to. As the cliché goes: “it’s a passing league.” Whereas franchise running backs were worth their weight in gold a couple of decades ago, there’s an increasing sentiment that a high-quality running back can be found on the second day of the NFL Draft. Their proof? Nine of the top 15 running backs in rushing at the moment were taken in the second round or later of their respective drafts.
When Pittsburgh decided they’d happily roll with Conner (a late third-round pick himself), it became apparent that Bell “lost” his bet with the Steelers, and would have to recoup that lost money elsewhere. But who’s willing to pay him the money he thinks he’s worth?
While he’ll demand a deal at least somewhere between Devonta Freeman’s five-year, $41.25 million deal and Todd Gurley’s four-year, $57.5 million deal, and while it only takes one foolhardy team to hand it to him, are those numbers anything close to realistic?
What team can you think of that would have both enough of a pressing need at running back to justify spending that much, and the salary cap space to do so (effectively tying up somewhere between 7-10% of their salary cap on a running back)?
As Kenny Rogers famously told us: “You never count your money, when you’re sittin‘ at the table.” Bell played his hand, and unfortunately, it wasn’t as good as he thought it was.