Why in the world should the powerful Steelers let Le’Veon Bell walk? I know you are all thinking I am totally bananas even suggesting this. First off, let me address a few points:
- I LOVE Le’Veon Bell, I think he is the best running back in the game and has followed his career since his college days at Michigan State
- I do thoroughly despise the Steelers as a Bengals fan and would love to see them fail – this has nothing to do with my argument
These two things aside, I think the Steelers would be much better off without Bell and will still be a strong offensive team without him.
Salary Cap Structure
The most obvious reason for them not to resign the best running back game is salary – the Steelers have been smashed up against the salary cap for many years due to salaries of players like Ben Roethlisberger ($23.2 million in 2018), Le’Veon Bell ($14.5 mil), Cameron Heyward ($12.45 million), Joe Haden ($11.9 million), and Maurkice Pouncey ($10.55 million). They have been able to franchise tag Bell the past few years but will not be able to in 2019. The Steelers bought some time by restructuring Antonio Brown’s deal reduce his cap hit to only $7.95 million, a crazy number for arguably the best receiver in the game. Brown is set to make $22.1 million in 2019 and Stephon Tuitt has a cap hit of $13.6 million in 2019. As it stands at this moment, the Steelers only have $13.4 million free space in 2019.
Bell reportedly turned down a $70 million over a 5-year deal which would have averaged $14 million a year – identical to what Todd Gurley received in July and $6 million more than the next two highest-paid running backs. The deal did only include $33 million guaranteed and it would have been all paid in first two years. Bell is reported to be seeking $17 million a year and more guaranteed money over the course of the contract.
Age and Usage
Bell turns 27 in February and theoretically has at least three good seasons before hitting the 30-year-old cliff that running backs often hit. He has averaged 308 touches a season over five seasons, which a staggering number especially considering Bell only played in 6 games in 2015 due to injury. Take that season out and in the four seasons Bell has played 12 or more games, he has averaged 351 touches a season and nearly 25 touches a game.
It’s hard to say exactly when a running back will decline but historically age 30 seems to be the age of decline with some statistics even say 27. In researching for this I found so many different articles and differing opinions but regardless, Bell has had a historic workload the past few years. 406 total touches in 2017 were the most in a season since Demarco Murray has 449 in 2014 with Dallas – those two seasons represented the only 400 plus touch seasons for a running back since 2009. It’s tough to fathom that Bell can maintain this pace for more than two or three seasons.
It puts the Steelers in a tough spot, knowing that a decline is looming but at the same time he is so integral in their offense and has been a monster since entering the league. What he adds to the offense is worth paying him as the highest paid running back but at the same time, a front-loaded contract makes all the sense in the world if they are worried the cliff is coming.
Pittsburgh’s State of the Running Back beyond Bell
How would the Steelers replace 350+ touches if Bell walks? The answer simply is that they don’t and they really can’t replace him with one running back, he is a rare talent. They do have a few running backs in the stable to help and there are also a few coming up as free agents next season that could figure in as well.
James Conner – if you unfamiliar with him and his story, please check it out and become familiar with the talented young running back. Conner battled cancer after his 2014 sophomore season at Pitt, a sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. He defeated cancer and returned in 2016, then posting 1,394 yards and 20 touchdowns – also catching 20 passes that season. Conner didn’t face the toughest defenses in the ACC but operated under Pat Narduzzi – a coach that was at Michigan State while Bell was there albeit Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. Narduzzi runs a pro-style offense at Pitt and Conner ran out of an offense much like what the Steelers run and should fit well into their schemes. Conner tested well at the combine and is a tough runner with a blue-collar work ethic the Steelers love to feature. He lacks the patience, finesse, and open field ability of Bell yet he has many tools to be successful. I highly recommend checking out this highlight reel for Conner if you haven’t seen any of his college work.
Jaylen Samuels – Samuels’ college production looks like Bell’s might have if Bell was used primarily as a pass catching back in East Lansing. Samuels tallied 153 touches for 1000 yards and 16 TDs his senior season at N.C. State- of those 153 touches, he caught 75 passes. He caught 201 passes in his college career for 1,851 yards and 19 receiving touchdowns. Samuels doesn’t profile as the typical tailback but it is impossible to deny the receiving prowess – something Bell was amazingly proficient in. Samuels also was a great goal-line back for the Wolfpack, showing power when asked to run in tough situations.
Fitzgerald Toussaint – Toussaint has been one of the primary backups to Bell since 2014 but has never been called into action extensively. He has played in 31 games, posting 44 rushes for a 3.1-yard average over 4 seasons. Toussaint is a smaller back and does not figure at all into long-term answers for the Steelers.
Stevan Ridley – Ridley has hung around the NFL since 2011, he flashed briefly in 2012 for a monster season in which he rushed for 1.263 yards and 12 touchdowns in New England but has done little since 2014. Ridley will likely be a cut before the season – he has 10 carries for only 14 yards thus far in the preseason and doesn’t appear to be as effective as he once was.
Jarvion Franklin – a big and powerful back, Franklin was signed as an undrafted free agent after the draft. Franklin hasn’t seen any preseason action and if he makes the team it will likely be as a practice squad player.
The State of the Entire Pittsburgh Offense
The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger signed through the 2019 season and drafted potential heir Mason Rudolph in the third round. Roethlisberger has hinted at retirement for several offseasons but shortly after the drafting of Rudolph, he stated he would like to play three to five more years. Roethlisberger is still a quarterback near the ‘elite’ tier despite his maddening home/road stat differences and interceptions that keep his overall QBR low – 64.3 average over the past 12 seasons. He brings veteran leadership and the Steelers win with him at the helm. Rudolph could be the future but will need a few seasons behind the veteran. He was proficient at Oklahoma State but ran a high-powered offense against some terrible defenses in the Big 12.
The wide receivers in the Steel City are possibly one of the most talented groups in the NFL. Antonio Brown – I don’t need to barrage you with stats, everyone knows how talented Brown is and what he brings. He did just turn 30 but shows no signs of slowing down, he is signed through 2021 and will have several more elite seasons. JuJu Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene in 2017, complementing Brown well and catching 58 passes on 79 targets for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns. Smith-Schuster doesn’t turn 22 until late November and will be a fixture in the Steeler offense for many years. On top of that dynamic duo, the Steelers selected Rudolph’s collegiate top target and deep threat James Washington in the second round. Washington posted video game stats in Stillwater, averaging 19.8 yards a catch over 4 seasons while catching 226 passes for over 4,400 yards and 39 touchdowns. Washington is explosive and will stretch the field like Martavis Bryant once did and has already made his mark in preseason games – 7 grabs for 158 yards as well as 2 scores in the first two games. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter are also on the roster and have historically been deep threats but the depth chart beyond these five drops off severely.
Tight end Vance McDonald and Jesse James are the main tight ends in the Pittsburgh offense and neither has been able to consistently produce. McDonald has shown flashes of talent since he entered the league in 2013 but has never notched more than 30 receptions in a season. McDonald stoked the flames of hope in the 2017 playoffs, catching 10 balls for 112 yards versus Jacksonville and displaying chemistry with Roethlisberger. James has produced similar regular season stat lines as McDonald, with his best season being 2017 in which he grabbed 43 passes for 372 yards and 3 scores.
Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh from 2012-2017, overseeing the offensive for Bell’s entire career thus far. Haley was released following the season and now resides in Cleveland as offensive coordinator. Randy Fichtner was promoted to fill Haley’s position and not much is known about how he will coach the offense. Fichtner has been with the Steelers for 11 seasons, three seasons as a wide receiver coach and the last eight seasons as the quarterback coach. He knows Roethlisberger well and will continue to focus on his strengths, I don’t see a huge overhaul in offensive philosophy but Fichtner could bring new wrinkles to the offense.
2019 Free Agent Running Backs
If the answer isn’t on the roster, Pittsburgh will have some options. Several high profile free agent running backs could hit the market in 2019 and Pittsburgh has a little salary cap to work with.
David Johnson is perhaps the only back in the league with the dual-threat capability that Le’Veon Bell possesses. Johnson has one full season under his belt, losing 2017 to injury and entering the starting lineup midway through 2015. Johnson had 2,118 total yards and 20 TDs in 2016 for one of the best running back seasons in history. Arizona likely will franchise tag the talented back if he is not re-signed. I don’t expect Johnson to hit the free agent market.
Mark Ingram will enter the 2019 season at the age of 29 and a free agent. Ingram will likely be a cheaper option due to his age and usage but his last two seasons have been his most productive of his career. In 2017 he rushed for 1,124 yards with 12 TDs and also caught 58 receptions for 416 yards additional. Ingram is a tough runner with good vision and an all-around back that could provide the Steelers with an answer for several years.
Jay Ajayi is a polarizing running back that at times has looked like a three-down back. In 2016 he had 1,423 total yards and 8 scores but 2017 brought uncertainty regarding his knee health and then a trade midway through the season. Ajayi will likely put up good numbers in 2018 if the Eagles give him the opportunity as he plays for the next contract. Still, he could be an affordable option to couple with what they have on the roster already.
Spencer Ware is an intriguing free agent and should also be one of the least costly unless he gets a chance to play and does well in 2018. Ware started 14 games for Kansas City in 2016 and responded with 1,368 total yards and 5 touchdowns. He had 214 carries and 33 catches in those 14 games, displaying three-down ability. An injury in 2017 and the emergence of Kareem Hunt shelved him for the season if given opportunity he could play himself in Pittsburgh if they turn to free agency.
The most viable free agent and the one I believe would fit the best is Tevin Coleman. Coleman would enter free agency at the age of 26 without a huge amount of usage. He has still shown the ability to play three downs, averaging 4.3 YPC for his career and has been dangerous as a pass catcher as well. Coleman has played behind Devonta Freeman, only starting 6 games in the past three years but still producing flex position startability in fantasy football due to big plays and 19 touchdowns scored over the past two seasons. Coleman will draw interest and will likely be the most expensive of the aforementioned backs other than Johnson.
Marshawn Lynch, Bilal Powell, Latavius Murray, and Ty Montgomery are also likely to hit the free agent market next season but I don’t see any as viable options or better than what the Steelers already have.
What Do the Steelers Do?
The Steelers let Le’Veon Bell go, let him leave via free agency for “greener” pastures. It seems like an insane idea for most with all Bell has meant to the Steelers but it seems like the time. The Pittsburgh front office has made attempts to negotiate and have offered contracts which reflect a commitment to Bell but don’t put them in such a position where they wouldn’t be able to make other roster moves.
Personally, I believe the options they have on the roster will still allow them to be successful offensively. Conner is talented enough to be a lead back but expecting him to replicate Bell is silly – complimenting him with an electric pass-catching back like Samuels would create a dual threat backfield. Signing one of the veterans above could be an option if they want veteran depth. A few options such as Powell and Montgomery can likely be signed inexpensively and provide an experienced back to help. Not one back will replace what Bell brings to the table and finding a back on his talent is rare.
Moving on would help the team most long term, they have young options on offense and defense to step up but they could still use help with defense through free agency if money becomes available. Their offense is one of the most dangerous in the NFL and still, will be without arguably the best running back in football. Bell is worth every money of what he is asking, yet the Steelers can’t afford to pay it if they want to have the best chance of winning the Super Bowl.