The case for the Eagles making a play for Le'Veon Bell

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles have the flexibility. They have the aggressive general manager. They have the need. And perhaps most important, they have the draft ammunition.

And if they want, they can rent the services of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for the rest of this season.

Whether it happens has yet to unfold, but a league source close to the Eagles confirmed one part of an ESPN report to Yahoo Sports on Monday night: Philadelphia has not been in pursuit of Bell up to this point in the season. However, the source said Bell is a viable option for the franchise in the wake of the season-ending ACL injury to starting running back Jay Ajayi. This despite ESPN also reporting Monday that the Eagles have no plan “at this time” to pursue Bell.

That phrasing might be a semantics game the Eagles are playing to retain some leverage in any trade pursuit, since the Steelers appear to be sellers stuck in a weak market for Bell’s services. Despite Bell being squarely on the trade block for two weeks and the league’s trade deadline looming on Oct. 30, nothing has materialized for Pittsburgh. With that reality in mind, it’s highly unlikely the Eagles would place themselves into a negotiating disadvantage by admitting they are in the market for Bell. Especially given that it’s clear that the scheme fit, need, talent, cash and draft chips are all squarely in place for a potential deal.

Le’Veon Bell hasn’t played a down of football this season after getting into a contract extension dispute with the Steelers. (Getty Images)
Le’Veon Bell hasn’t played a down of football this season after getting into a contract extension dispute with the Steelers. (Getty Images)

Eagles can afford to make a deal – for this season

And one thing has become increasing clear in recent years: NFL teams are more willing than ever to be active at the league’s trade deadline. In this case, deadlines and team needs may be precisely what’s necessary to get a deal done for Bell. Perhaps most intriguing when it comes to the Eagles is that the salary cap math – and some reported restructuring – suddenly makes the franchise a ripe trade partner for the remainder of Bell’s 2018 franchise tag salary.

According to ESPN, the Eagles restructured the contract of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox last week to create $6.5 million in immediate cap space for the franchise. That would give Philadelphia somewhere between $10 million to $11 million in salary space under the 2018 cap. That is an interesting bit of wiggle room considering the prorated remainder of Bell’s franchise tag for 2018 stands at roughly $10.2 million if he reports this week – or $9.4 million if he reports in Week 7.

Eagles have draft picks to use in bargaining

Cap space alone doesn’t make deals. The Steelers are also seeking a high draft pick for Bell’s services. For a team to consider surrendering that kind of asset, the franchise would need a bold general manager who sees a significant amount of short-term value in adding Bell for the remainder of 2018. Few general managers have fit this description better than the Eagles’ Howie Roseman in recent years. The Eagles also should have as many as 12 picks in the 2019 draft (depending on compensatory selections) – a cache that includes two second-round picks.

An aggressive GM with some draft picks to burn usually makes for an active team. And sitting at 2-3 through the season’s first five games, the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles still have a healthy window to turn the season into the right direction and rediscover the offensive chemistry that led them to last season’s Super Bowl.

Here’s why Eagles need to boost its backfield

All of which brings us to what appears to be an incontrovertible truth at this stage of the season for Philadelphia: if the Eagles are serious about repeating as champs, they appear to need Le’Veon Bell to make that happen. Not only has the offense been far more imbalanced than last season’s team – which finished third in the league in rushing yardage – it also is dealing with significant attrition in the backfield. Beyond Ajayi’s injury, it’s clear the Eagles have missed the physical consistency of LeGarrette Blount, who departed in the offseason. Making matters worse, utility back Darren Sproles has been injury prone and already missed the past four weeks with a hamstring issue.

It also hasn’t helped that the Eagles have struggled to get out of the gate against opponents, which often put Pederson’s play-calling into advantageous positions in 2017 to remain balanced and unpredictable. A fact that Pederson alluded to Monday.

“We’ve got to figure out how to start games faster, stay on the field longer, and generate points early in football games because if you go back to our history, the times that we’ve had success as a football team, we’ve been able to do that,” Pederson said. “We’ve been able to score on opening drives, get the lead early, which allows for your running game to really take over – play-action pass [and] all of that. That’s one of the ingredients that’s missing right now.”

Once again – with those comments in mind – Bell appears to be an even more perfect fit in Philly. Not only would Bell be a three-down back in Pederson’s offense, his ability to block and catch the football would make Philadelphia’s offense even harder to peg from one down to the next. That’s something the Eagles can’t say when they’re rolling in a rotation of Sproles, Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood.

Downside to adding Bell

Maybe the Eagles’ only clear downside of a Bell pursuit: It’s highly unlikely the franchise could retain him in free agency in 2019. Even with the Cox restructuring, the Eagles will have to be very creative to get under the 2019 cap – especially if they want to extend veterans or retain some of their own free agents. That would make a long-term deal for Bell highly unlikely.

None of that changes the realities of maximizing 2018. There’s little doubt that Bell could help the Eagles and quarterback Carson Wentz. There’s also little doubt that he’s suited to run behind that offensive line. And there’s no mistaking that all the ingredients are there right now for an aggressive seize-the-moment deal.

The Eagles have the need and the creative general manager. They have the available cap space and trade ammunition. Now all they need is the inclination to make a bold move for this season.

If history is any indication, that option is squarely on the table for consideration.

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