The Pittsburgh Steelers history is built on defenses that crush anything in front of them. Their list of legendary players is almost exclusively those that played defense. However, in recent years the Steelers model has shifted toward the offensive side of the ball. Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger… Nearly all their best players are on offense, and the best of them all may well be running back Le’Veon Bell.
The problem for the Steelers is two-fold. They haven’t made the Super Bowl with this current group of offensive stars, and Le’Veon Bell is hitting free agency.
The All-Pro back played the 2017 season on the franchise tag, earning himself a very nice $12.1 million. While that was possible for the Steelers this season, the tag number for Bell jumps to $14.5 million in 2018 and even before they address a long-term deal they are $3.9 million OVER the 2018 salary cap. In order to fit Le’Veon Bell in on a new contract they will have to do some creative accounting, and if they have to tag him there will be some serious cuts made to the rest of the roster. The question is, is it really worth keeping him for the Steelers?
The Steelers roster is far from perfect. They need to overhaul most of their secondary, they need to find more help at inside linebacker, and they need to find space for upcoming contract extensions for Ramon Foster and Martavis Bryant. Even if they do clear cap space there are other areas that require the attention of the Steelers, not just Bell, and a contract for their All-Pro back might just break the bank.
Projecting a Le’Veon Bell contract
The current market for running backs is not overly healthy. Devonta Freeman signed a five-year, $41 million deal with the Falcons last year that guaranteed him around $22 million. Leonard Fournette’s controlled rookie contract (four years, $27 million) makes him the fifth-highest paid back in the NFL. The last big free agent running back deal was DeMarco Murray signing a deal extremely similar to Freeman’s extension, it was five-year, $40 million with $21 million guaranteed.
This gives the Steelers a lot of leverage in any negotiations. The lack of inflation in running back contracts is contrary to basically every other position in the NFL, where market-setting deals happen nearly every year. Even eight or nine years ago $8 million a year was about as much as anyone was willing to pay a running back, and the cap has risen significantly since then.
However, there hasn’t been a back like Le’Veon Bell to hit the open market in a long, long time, and there are some teams out there who could use Bell’s talents and have a lot more cap space than the Steelers.
Bell has played 62 regular season games for the Steelers, and if you broke his production into a 16-game average his stats are truly staggering. He would have 1,377 yards at 4.3 yards per carry, 686 receiving yards on 81 receptions and 11 total touchdowns. That is insane production and his is about to turn 26!
Devonta Freeman didn’t have that kind extensive history of brilliance when he signed his extension. Nor did DeMarco Murray when he hit free agency. The starting point for any negotiations with Bell is likely to be five years, $50 million with around $30 million guaranteed. Can the Steelers afford it?
The Steelers are going to have to make a lot of moves if they want to sign Bell to a contract like that. With a veteran team like the Steelers there is a lot of money to be saved, if they are willing to make the tough decisions.
Perhaps the toughest one is with Ryan Shazier. The interior linebacker suffered a spinal injury in December and has since had to have stabilization surgery and has a long road back to being able to walk, nevermind play football. While Art Rooney II has said that Shazier will have a roll with the organization regardless of what happens, it may be best for the team to cut him as a player. They could save $8.7 million on the cap without Shazier’s contract. Like I said, a lot of money to be had, but a tough decision to be made.
Away from Shazier there are people like #2 tight end Vance McDonald could go and save $4.3 million on the cap. Joe Haden was maybe the Steelers best corner in 2017, but they could save $8.1 million by cutting him. There is $3 million to be had by moving on from rotational DL Tyson Alualu, and $1 million if they cut Darrius Heyward-Bey.
All those moves amount to $25.1 million in cap savings, putting them around $21.2 million under, a good result. And yet a contract for Le’Veon Bell would almost immediately eat that up. So the question is, are the Steelers better off paying him and getting thinner elsewhere, or should they simply let Le’Veon Bell walk and use the money saved to improve the roster?
Should they sign Bell?
In all honesty, I would let Le’Veon Bell walk. That is tough to do given just how productive and important he has been to the Steelers in recent years, but at the same time having Bell has not delivered a Lombardi Trophy. In Bell’s time with the Steelers they have been to one AFC championship game, in 2016 where they were soundly beaten by the New England Patriots.
For all of Bell’s brilliance, the Steelers use of him puts them in a very awkward position when someone, usually the Patriots, is able to take him away and limit his impact. There is a growing supply of young, talented running backs coming out of college. This year we saw Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette make an impact. Last year we had Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, and Jordan Howard. 2015 it was Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and David Johnson.
That is ten world-class running backs selected from the top of the first round all the way to the fifth. It has never been easier to find an impactful back, and one who can play in the passing game too. As great as Bell is, he isn’t irreplaceable.
Investing in Bell severely hamstring their ability to develop the rest of the team. They have so far been getting terrific value for money from Bell, and having him, until 2017, on a cheap deal has allowed them to retain the likes of Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward. Even if Bell provides 2,000 yards from scrimmage a year until 2021, at $10 million a year he will not be value for money, and players like TJ Watt or JuJu Smith-Schuster may end up paying the price.
The Steelers should let Bell go. They should let someone else destroy their salary cap for a very good running back in a league that is more and more quarterback-dependent. It is a tough thing to let an All-Pro go, but in this case it is the right decision to make.
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