Thanks to some shrewd and arcane books-managing, the Steelers have created somewhere in the ballpark of $14 million in immediate cap relief, making it all but certain that free-agent-to-be Le’Veon Bell will be on the roster in 2018. This is an encouraging development because Le’Veon Bell is an exceptional football player and his presence in the backfield makes the Steelers a better team.
Of course, “Le’Veon Bell” has become more of an idea than a person at this point, and the to keep not to keep argument has become one rooted in vitriol and contentiousness. Personally, I think it is absurd that a sizable pocket (perhaps even the majority) of Pittsburgh’s fanbase seems to be totally cool with letting arguably the NFL’s best running back chase greener pastures, but I recognize that some of these contrarian opinions are highly logical. The salary cap ramifications, for example, come to mind, and it’s definitely fair to wonder how a long-term Bell for deal will impact the team’s financials down the road. While I remain resolute in my desire to see Bell on the Steelers in 2018 and beyond, I am cognizant of the pitfalls. Here are some pros and cons.:
Pro: Le’Veon Bell is a one-man platoon
My favorite “let Bell walk” argument is the “Super Bowl participants” argument, which supports the notion that championship-caliber teams don’t actually need an All-Pro running back. What this stance fails to recognize, however, is that one of the Super Bowl participants boasted perhaps the league’s deepest roster, and the other had the greatest quarterback/coach duo in NFL history. In other words, it’s easy to make a backfield platoon work effectively under these circumstances. Of course, this isn’t an indictment of Pittsburgh’s current anatomy—the Steelers have at least as much star power as the Eagles (though debatably less depth), and Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin form an objectively formidable gruesome twosome—but rather an acknowledgment that the New England and Philadelphia models are not necessarily some neatly replicable things.
Don’t get me wrong: whether rooted in luxury (Saints, Eagles) or necessity (Patriots, Titans), platoons absolutely do work. As it stands, though, the Steelers do not have an abundance of backfield riches (James Conner seems like an alright player, but nobody can really say one way or another at this point). But isn’t as if they need 3-4 “good” running backs, either. Bell has firmly established himself as the most versatile running back in the NFL, acting as both an extension of the offensive line and the receiving corps, and he’s proven capable of handling a workload that is utterly goofy by 2017 standards (Bell had 321 rushing attempts in 2017; LeSean McCoy, who finished second in the league in rushing attempts, had 287). However, it’s important to consider how that workload may impact Bell moving forward.
Con: God, that’s a ton of carries
Bell has 1,229 career rushing attempts and 312 career catches (he’s actually already climbed to no. 8 on the Steelers all-time receiving list, which is bananas), which amounts to somewhere in the ballpark of 24 offensive touches per game and 400 offensive touches per season, playoffs notwithstanding. That is so, so many touches. Bell turns 26 later this month, so if the Steelers do manage to sign him to a long-term contract, it would be reasonable to assume that Bell will not touch the football 400 times in 2018. I think he won’t, anyway. Running a $15 million/year investment into the ground does not strike me as a particularly sagacious business move, especially when he would hitting the dreaded age-29 roadblock in the fourth year of the contract.
(As an aside, the Steelers could really screw Bell pretty royally by tagging him again next month. I don’t want to completely denigrate the Steelers too harshly on this (business is business, or whatever), but by tagging Bell in 2018, they would effectively prevent him from hitting the open market until after his 27th birthday, which could really throw a wrench in his plans to secure a lucrative, long-term contract.)
Pro: Sustained workflow!
The core components of Pittsburgh’s offense are under contract through 2019, which should allow them to remain in the championship picture for at least another couple of seasons. Bell has proven to be the focal point of this attack, so it makes little sense to fracture it, especially since a) the Steelers don’t seem to have a particularly salient contingency plan in place and b) they would receive nothing in return for losing Bell, save for a draft pick (which may or may not yield an actual NFL player—for every JuJu Smith-Schuster, there are at least as many Senquez Golsons).
Con: A long-term deal may hamstring Pittsburgh’s short-, medium-, and long-term financial flexibility
Pittsburgh’s front office, which is composed of a guild of unassailable financial warlocks, routinely performs miracles with the payroll. But paying a bunch of star players a ton of money while simultaneously trying to fill holes elsewhere is an entanglement to say the least. Rookie-scale salaries are a thing of beauty, but when those rookies transform into generational, Hall of Fame-caliber players, the piper must eventually be paid. The Steelers may be able to field a thermonuclear offense for the next few years, but the defense could include Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and whatever combination of young and old dudes the team can scrap together in free agency and the draft.
Does Le’Veon Bell deserve a massive, record-setting contract? Make no mistake, he absolutely does, and he should not feel compelled to accept a hometown discount. The Steelers will, of course, have their own pros and cons to weigh before arriving at a decision. Fortunately, we’ll know soon enough.