For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Steelers are opening their season against the Cleveland Browns, and for the second straight year, the Steelers are hoping star running back Le’Veon Bell will return shortly beforehand.
Bell, 26, is once again skipping training camp, this time just months after he turned down a five-year, $70 million deal from the Steelers that was reportedly light on guaranteed money.
The extended absence did not affect him last season, when he racked up 1,946 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage on 406 touches for a team that went 13-3 and won the AFC North. The Steelers hope he’ll stuff the stat sheet in a similar way again.
So, barring a surprise — like the Steelers rescinding Bell’s $14.5 million franchise tag before the season, making him a free agent, for example — betting on a big season from Bell would appear to be a reasonable wager since he’ll be essentially auditioning for his next contract before hitting the open market in March. And that’s where things could get interesting because a week after Bell reportedly turned down the Steelers’ final offer this summer, another star running back — the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley — inked a four-year deal worth $60 million, which included $45 million in guaranteed money at signing.
By contrast, the Steelers’ offer to Bell reportedly included only $10 million guaranteed at signing, with Bell potentially making $33 million in guarantees over the first two years, with a significant portion of that presumably coming via roster bonuses, which is the Steelers’ custom when it comes to handing out big contracts.
“They have these roster bonuses in the second and third year for the larger deals that are [awarded to the player] on the first, third or fifth day of the league year, and these are supposed to act as substitutes for guarantees,” former agent and salary cap expert Joel Corry explained. “But that’s still not the same security [as a traditional deal].”
While Corry originally thought Bell made a mistake in turning that money down, he now says it will work out for Bell. Former agent and salary cap expert J.I. Halsell agrees.
“In this business, you know how ruthless it is, how ruthless the [team] owners are,” Halsell said. “You’ve got to get what you can get from a guaranteed money standpoint, especially when you touch the ball as many times as Le’Veon does, at the position he plays.”
To that end, Gurley’s new deal is a game-changer, one that significantly elevates the previously stagnant running back market in a significant way. Gurley’s deal with the Rams is worth about 75 percent more than the previous standard of a long-term deal, which was set by Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman in 2017, and some decision-makers across the league think that this elevation will be a good thing for Bell on the open market, though it comes with a significant caveat.
“Gurley’s deal will help Bell because of the guarantees,” one decision-maker told Yahoo Sports. “But saying that, Bell is looking to break the running back market, and that’s going to be hard to do.”
A Kirk Cousins-type deal?
How could Bell break the open market? One way, according to Halsell, is by asking for a fully guaranteed contract, just like quarterback Kirk Cousins — another player who hit the market unencumbered after playing two years on the franchise tag — received from Minnesota in March.
“Now he has the opportunity to be the Kirk Cousins of the running back position in free agency,” Halsell said. “He’s legitimately one of the top two, at worst, top three running backs in football. And he’s still 26 years old.”
However, there’s a problem with that, Halsell added, and it’s glaring. While teams are indeed valuing versatile running backs who never have to come off the field in an increasingly offense-happy league — five running backs have been top-10 picks over the past four drafts, compared to just one the previous four — the importance of quarterbacks gave Cousins the ultimate leverage in free agency.
Both Corry and Halsell, however, think it’s reasonable for Bell to initially ask for a Cousins deal, and readjust expectations to a more traditional deal that could still pay him, at worst, the amount of guaranteed money the Steelers offered.
“Yeah, I’d try to,” Corry said. “I don’t necessary think a team’s gonna guarantee the third year. But I’d be looking at [receiver] Sammy Watkins, who got $48 million over three years — $30 fully guaranteed at signing — from the Chiefs, and I’d set that as the target. That wouldn’t be an unreasonable asking price.”
To that end, multiple NFL executives reached by Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity had a difficult time seeing a running back, even one as talented as Bell, commanding a fully guaranteed deal like Cousins did in free agency.
“No way,” one decision-maker said. “I wouldn’t be that desperate, myself.”
“I don’t see anyone doing that for a running back — especially one who will be a year older, with some issues,” another decision-maker added.
Will Bell’s issues get in the way?
Bell missed eight games in 2015 with a torn MCL in his knee. He was also suspended two games that season after he was arrested with then-teammate LeGarrette Blount on DUI and marijuana possession charges while driving to the airport. In 2016, he was also suspended three games for reportedly missing multiple drug tests.
So to get paid the kind of money he wants on the open market, decision-makers say Bell will need a few things to happen. He’ll need to avoid any more suspensions. He’ll need to stay healthy — remember, the Steelers have no incentive to manage his workload — and have a typical Le’Veon Bell-type season in terms of productivity.
Lastly, it would help him if a team flush with salary-cap space has a good, but not great, season. One that could lead its decision-makers to believe the franchise is only a star player away from breaking through.
One executive’s prediction?
“He’ll eventually get a full-market deal in free agency, but he won’t touch Gurley’s as a whole because of his off-field issues.”
But then … a caveat.
“It only takes one team, though,” the decision-maker added.
With that in mind, let’s count down the teams the smart money likes for Bell (odds are from Bovada), with an emphasis on scheme and personnel fit. All projected 2019 cap room information is provided by OverTheCap.com.
9. Buffalo Bills: 15/1.
2019 cap room: $70.5 million.
The Bills have publicly stood behind LeSean McCoy, who is being sued by an ex-girlfriend in connection to a July home invasion. McCoy is a do-it-all back like Bell who is coming off a 1,000-yard campaign, but he’s four years older than Bell and the Bills could save $6.4 million by releasing him before next season. If McCoy has a down season and Buffalo wants to make a splash, the Bills have more than enough cap space to make it work.
8. Arizona Cardinals: 12/1.
2019 cap room: $43.5 million.
This is a fascinating inclusion. The Cardinals already have a stud, do-it-all back in David Johnson, who is the same age as Bell (26). Johnson, however, practically missed all of last season with a dislocated wrist, and he’s entering the final year of his deal. Unless Johnson falls off, it might make more sense for the Cardinals to franchise him twice after this year, allowing him to hit free agency in the season he turns 29.
7. Oakland Raiders: 10/1.
2019 cap room: $45.7 million.
Love this possibility. New coach Jon Gruden loves veteran players, and Bell will be only 27 next season. Bell is also the perfect back for Gruden’s system, someone who catches the ball well and runs zone and power equally well. The Raiders have Marshawn Lynch, 32, but his presence shouldn’t keep Oakland from exploring this scenario. The Raiders can clear a ton of cap space next season by releasing a multitude of veterans, so Gruden can make this work.
6. Houston Texans: 6/1.
2019 cap room: $60.3 million.
Another sneaky-good spot. Starter Lamar Miller, 27, looks quicker than ever, but the Texans can save $6.2 million if they cut him before the final year of his deal in 2019. D’Onta Foreman, a third-round pick a year ago, impressed in spots a year ago with his power and speed, but he’s recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The addition of Bell, along with quarterback Deshaun Watson and stud receiver DeAndre Hopkins, would potentially give the Texans a star-studded trio along the lines of the Steelers’ Killer Bs.
5. Detroit Lions: 11/2.
2019 cap room: $38.6 million.
There’s little doubt the Lions could use a player of Bell’s caliber; they’ve traditionally had one of the league’s worst run games for years. However, general manager Bob Quinn comes from New England, where the Patriots don’t traditionally spend big on running backs, and the early returns are promising on rookie Kerryon Johnson, who Quinn traded up to get in the second round.
4. Cleveland Browns: 5/1.
2019 cap room: $22.1 million.
Lord knows Bell could help the Browns, who are coming off a winless season. But during my training camp trip to Ohio, I came away thinking general manager John Dorsey is excited about his promising trio of running backs in strong runner Carlos Hyde, versatile third-down type Duke Johnson and 2018 second-round pick Nick Chubb, who reminds Dorsey of the last running back he selected in Kansas City — 2017 rookie of the year Kareem Hunt. Combined with the Browns’ potential lack of cap flexibility, this is a tough fit for Bell.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: 4/1.
2019 cap room: $15.8 million.
Perhaps the Steelers slap the transition tag and match whatever is offered, but it’s not like Pittsburgh has a ton of cap space to play with. Sure, they could make some moves to clear room, but any team that offers Bell a deal could structure it in a way that’s cost-prohibitive for the Steelers. Bell could remain a Steeler if he gets hurt, has another off-field issue or his production drops off, but if he has a big season, it’s easy to see him testing the market.
2. New York Jets: 4/1.
2019 cap room: $81.6 million.
This is my odds-on favorite. It’s a big city, and a team flushed with cap space. Plus, there’s no one on the roster on Bell’s level. The Jets’ priority will be giving Sam Darnold all the weapons he needs to develop, and a player like Bell would be an ideal fit on a playmaker-starved offense.
1. Indianapolis Colts: 15/4.
2019 cap room: $62.8 million.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has diligently worked to surround Andrew Luck with more talent, fortifying the offensive line with first-round guard Quenton Nelson and second-round guard Braden Smith. Coach Frank Reich wants to keep Luck upright, too, so adding someone like Bell could take pressure off the QB via the run game and serve as an excellent security blanket in the short passing game. One thing to keep in mind — I visited the Colts in training camp this year, and got the impression that Ballard loves the pair of fourth-round runners he took the past two years, Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines.
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