The window for the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign star running back Le’Veon Bell to a long-term contract is shrinking—it closes on July 15, to be exact, the deadline for teams to negotiate deals with players bearing the franchise tag.
If Bell and the Steelers have made any progress on such an extension, they certainly haven’t expressed so publicly. This is surprising (and, in fact, somewhat troubling), especially when considering that Bell nearly surpassed the 2,000-yard threshold in 12 games last season, and in doing so became the first player in NFL history to average 100 rushing years and 50 receiving yards per game.
There are, of course, two angles from which to address Bell’s contract situation, both of which are equally viable. On one hand, Bell plays a position that has never been more under-valued and has had well-documented injury and off-field issues. On the other hand, Bell is debatably the best overall running back in the NFL, and unquestionably the most versatile. Paying him whatever he wants should be a no-brainer.
Let’s go ahead and expand on the latter concept this time around:
Do you understand the significance of Bell’s 2016 campaign? If you expand his production to a 16-game schedule, Bell would have finished with nearly 1,700 rushing yards and just over 800 receiving yards. This hypothetical season would’ve placed Bell squarely in the “best ever single season for a running back” conversation.
Bell’s value is derived from his versatility, which is the kind of catch-all term that devalues the term itself. Danny Woodhead is versatile. Adrian Peterson is not. Adrian Peterson is a better running back than Danny Woodhead.
But Le’Veon Bell is versatile. Actually, let’s use Peterson to support this argument.
Peterson averaged roughly $12 million in annual earnings during the final six years of his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings. While it would be difficult to argue that Peterson wasn’t worth every penny of that contract (he amassed nearly 12,000 rushing yards and 97 touchdowns), it is fair to claim that Peterson’s skillset is extremely one-dimensional. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I would argue Peterson was the best running back of my generation—but it does give Bell a key piece of leverage: if the Vikings are willing to commit this kind of money to a dude who excels in one particular area (running over fools like a cement truck), then the Steelers should be thrilled to pay for a guy that is really good at a bunch of stuff.
It is no secret that Peterson was a sub-par receiver and an even worse blocker. Bell is an awesome receiver and an even better blocker. Bell isn’t particularly unique in this sense (Danny Woodhead, for example, is a great receiver and might be the best pound-for-pound blocker in the league), but he is assuredly the best at being the most unique.
The Steelers have wisely used Bell’s versatility to their benefit. Bell led the NFL with 28.05 offensive touches per game last season (a league-leading 28.1 rushing attempts per game and 6.25 receptions per game). Basically, if the NFL was the NBA, Bell’s usage rate would fall somewhere between Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Naturally, this level of usage probably isn’t sustainable long-term and probably would have been substantially curbed had Bell played all 16 games. Sustainability notwithstanding, this incredible usage rate does confirm that Bell is the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s offensive attack. Could the Steelers replace Bell with a mid-level running back and be successful? Probably. But replacing the most important component of the offense with a mid-tier counterpart is like including a putter from the local mini-golf course in your bag of 716 AP2s.
Allowing Bell to depart under the assumption that said departure will augment Pittsburgh’s financial flexibility and, by extension, their ability to address other needs is a major gamble. Theoretically, the Steelers could allocate the funds reserved for Bell to other players on the team (including Alejandro Villanueva, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt) or sign some free agents. However, signing big-name free agents has never been Pittsburgh’s forte, and with several expiring contracts and an ever-expanding salary cap, the Steelers could potentially afford to keep Bell and their other young stars in town for the next couple of years, at least until Ben Roethlisberger decides to retire.
At this point, the best case scenario for Pittsburgh is to get moving on a contract that keeps Bell in Pittsburgh for at least the next five seasons. He is young, has proven his ability to overcome injuries and is an integral element of Pittsburgh’s offense attack.