Following a report from Adam Schefter of ESPN on Sunday that the Pittsburgh Steelers were now listening to trades offers for Le’Veon Bell, the initial response from many fans and most of the Steelers’ beat writing community is that a trade will never happen. However, while it may seem highly unlikely that Pittsburgh would move their star running-back during the season, it might not be quite as implausible as some believe.
Putting aside the obvious technical difficulties of completing a trade, principally the fact that Bell would need to sign his franchise tag and also have agreed to the move, accepting suitable compensation from a team capable of absorbing his cap hit shouldn’t be that hard to do.
With Bell set to be playing elsewhere in 2019 when he hits free agency, if the the Steelers stay on their current path, the best Pittsburgh will see in return when he leaves is a third-round compensatory draft pick in 2020. In a practical sense, anything another team is willing to offer them which is better than the 33rd pick in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft is essentially an upgrade.
As ridiculous as it might seem to say, receiving a third-round pick in the 2019 draft, as they did previously in the deal that sent Martavis Bryant to Oakland, is probably a deal worth doing this year. Find a team willing to push that to a second-round pick, and the trade is a no-brainer. For the franchise getting Bell on what would amount to a one-year rental, the risk of a second- or third-round pick might not be too much to part with for the potential Bell offers, and they’d still get that aforementioned third-round pick in 2020 if he left them instead.
Adding a conditional pick in the 2020 draft based on the trading team’s ability to sign Bell to a long-term deal could also help facilitate the deal. As it’s reasonable to assume that the team trading for him might well have agreed to contract terms in principle with Bell prior to the transaction, it seems credible to believe agreements could be made to everyone’s satisfaction — even if they can’t be written down (officially).
Contrary to arguments suggesting the Steelers’ trade partners are limited to any interested party with just under $12 million in salary-cap space currently available to accommodate Bells’ existing contract, it’s relatively easy for any franchise to restructure the deals of their existing players to create sufficient room. As per OverTheCap.com, all but five teams currently have more than $4 million in salary cap space available, and it wouldn’t take much for most of them to find the extra $8 million.
As of Monday, eight teams already have enough cap space in 2018, and virtually every team in the league could find a way to absorb a sizable long-term deal, what with only three teams projected to have less than $10 million in salary-cap space available next year.
Perhaps the biggest question at this stage should be which team will have the nerve to try and make such a bold move and how stubborn will Pittsburgh be about the compensation. With the second-most cap space in the league to play with at more than $51 million, the Indianapolis Colts could easily afford Bell and appear to have the need for his talents on offense. They haven’t been above making debatable trades in the past either or overpaying for certain big-name players on offense.
Assuming Pittsburgh wants to keep him out of the division, the Cleveland Browns have no chance of getting their hands on him, even with their $59 million in cap space. If Jimmy Garoppolo hadn’t potentially been knocked out for the season, the San Francisco 49ers might also have been in the running, but it feels more likely that a team willing to make this move will be one on the cusp of a championship, or one that’s desperate to avoid another disastrous season.
The Houston Texans are currently sitting with a spare $23 million and could well be interested, especially if Bill O’Brien hopes to rescue on 0-3 start for a team that looked to be contenders before the year began. Running back Lamar Miller has only one more year under contract with the Texans, and there can be little question Bell would be a significant upgrade who would seriously elevate that offense.
Ideally, Pittsburgh would move Bell out of the conference altogether, and a team like the Washington Redskins could also make a viable trade partner. While injured second-round draft pick Derrius Guice is possibly their back of the future, owner Daniel Snyder hasn’t been averse to making questionable moves in the past. If a 2-1 start has the Redskins feeling optimistic about the season, adding Bell into the mix might be something they could talk themselves into, even if Adrian Peterson has had an impressive start to the year for a 33-year-old running back. Having $10 million in cap space doesn't hurt either.
Both the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions look like they could use a player of Bell’s ability in the backfield, and neither are too far away from having the cap space needed to sign him already. For the Packers, he could be that missing championship piece, and for the Lions, bringing the former Michigan State product back home could inspire a fan base that has been suffering at the position ever since Barry Sanders retired.
However, none of the options mean anything if Bell isn’t interested in them and, if he’s looking for a particular location, he might have different ideas. Should he be looking to stay close to his recently adopted home of Miami, given his love of the local nightlife, the Dolphins could be a very credible option for him.
No income tax in the State of Florida has to be a major draw and the surprising, 3-0 Dolphins are certainly in need of a decent running back. Starter Kenyan Drake has been far from impressive through three games and Miami is another team with an owner willing to vastly overpay for name talent. With $8.5 million in cap room currently available, it wouldn’t take much effort to find the space.
If I was betting on which team Bell would be on by the end of the season, I would probably put a large amount of money on it being the Steelers, but if I was forced to pick another team, my guess would be the Dolphins.