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Steelers Burning Questions: Is parting with Le’Veon Bell the best financial decision for the Steelers?

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Is signing running back Le’Veon Bell the best business decision the Steelers can make this off-season?

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Le’Veon Bell is the NFL’s best all-around back.

You can dispute that if you’d like. It’s a subjective statement in a lot of ways. Yes, the RamsTodd Gurley had more yards from scrimmage on fewer touches this season. Yes, Bell was out-gained by a rookie and by Gurley on the ground. Yes, rookie Alvin Kamara had more receiving yards on fewer touches.

Still, Bell has done this consistently in his career—when he’s not hurt or suspended that is.

And that’s where this discussion becomes a true debate. Taken at face value — a player who’s averaged nearly 129 yards from scrimmage in each game he’s played — there’s no question Bell is worth a significant sum of money. As far as moving the ball down the field goes, there’s no one besides a quarterback of greater value to an NFL team than someone who’s a threat as a runner, a receiver and even a blocker. Teams have to get creative to account for someone like that.

But — and this is a huge but — Bell has laid bare for all to see a wealth of baggage during his five seasons. Without rehashing in detail, there have been two suspensions, two season-ending injuries, an ongoing contract dispute with the front office that has now entered a third off-season, plus a near-constant airing of his opinions about, well, everything on Twitter and other social-media avenues.

So, the question is clear: is he worth the combination of money and pain that the Steelers are going to have to deal with to keep him around for another two to four years?

The average NFL career is is a mere 3.3 years. Of course, that takes into account all late-round picks and undrafted free agents who latch on as depth for a year or two before fading into the annals of NFL history as footnotes. Yes, that’s harsh, but it’s also reality.

For running backs, the average career is even shorter, at 2.57 years. An awful lot of backs wash out, simply because there’s a wealth of them available each year, and teams without a game-changing back are always on the lookout for someone better. But it’s also because they take more hits than any other offensive players.

Other stats point to greater longevity for someone like Bell. Players who make an opening-day roster as a rookie last six years. Pro-Bowl players last a whopping 11.7 years — that number does, of course, include everyone at every position, including kickers, punters and quarterbacks.

So, let’s just pick a number: let’s assume that running backs taken in the second round of the NFL draft, compile multiple Pro-Bowl seasons and touch the ball at least 300 times in a single season last about eight years.

One thing the Steelers would likely try to do with any contract they offer Bell would be to start him with a low base salary in 2018, due to their already-tight salary cap situation. Chances are, if they were to give him the $16 million per year he’s asking for, they’d target around a $12 million total cap hit for this season. Here’s the problem: if you signed him to a three-year contract, then the remaining two years have to average $18 million. That’s getting into quarterback range at this point. So the reality is that a feasible contract would be for a minimum of four years, and five would make it even more possible. But due to the longevity of players who take the kind of beating Bell does, there’s a significant chance he wouldn’t even play out a four-year contract. That means the Steelers would be left holding the bag, having to account for prorated signing-bonus money. And, since retirement accelerates that accounting, any additional years remaining would suddenly count in the current year. If Bell signed a five-year contract that included a $20 million bonus, and retired after three years, the Steelers would suddenly carry $8 million of dead money.

And that’s not even accounting for what appears to be an ongoing level of immaturity from Bell. His actions and comments leading up to their divisional-round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, including skipping most of the team’s Saturday walk-through and showing up late on game day, point to a player who’s more in it for himself than for the team. That, alone, makes him eminently replaceable.

In order to free up the kind of money Bell wants, the Steelers would have to cut a combination of starters and key depth pieces, especially if they want to make any other moves this off-season. There’s a likely need at free safety and other important free agents to sign, including kicker Chris Boswell, who has been one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL over the last three seasons, breaking the Steelers’ team record for most points scored in a single season. While it would be nice to keep a player like Bell, who can change a game in numerous ways, is it worth it if it means passing up other players who also play critical roles?

Probably not. Especially if he’s going to continue refusing to grow up.