An NFL player can irritate some portions of the locker room. He can rankle a coaching staff. He can even have his agent repeatedly butt heads with the team’s front office.
But when a contract holdout starts crossing into taunting territory, it’s time to move on. And if you have any doubts about Le’Veon Bell being at this point of no return, just check out the jet-ski jaunt from Miami earlier this month. If Bell’s divorce from the Pittsburgh Steelers finally goes down, history is likely to remember that moment being the incident that prompted the Steelers to break it off.
According to a league source who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Monday, that snippet of Bell on the water is when Pittsburgh officially opened the door to trade offers. Partially because of the impact Bell’s behavior – and the questions surrounding it – have had on the locker room, and partly because the Steelers are now convinced that Bell’s heart is more invested in his pending free agency than coming in and helping Pittsburgh. Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, has been putting out trade feelers to other franchises for several weeks, the source said. But within only the past few days have the Steelers been open to listening to offers.
— Yahoo Sports NFL (@YahooSportsNFL) September 18, 2018
None of that means a deal is likely to happen, largely because of the complications that surround an acquisition. There is a question of what the Steelers would accept for Bell – a bounty that would need to be at least a third-round pick because that is what Bell’s free-agent departure would likely draw in a compensatory draft choice. But the more complicated matter for teams pursuing Bell is the fact that they can’t sign him until after the season, due to franchise tag restrictions. In effect, he could be a short-term rental for any team that acquires him, choosing to play out the string and maximize his value in free agency. There’s also the matter of Bell being intent on preserving his health prior to that free-agency foray. It’s a goal that will likely extend to any team that signs him as well.
So what is Bell really worth and who is in play? That’s a question best answered by a handful of factors, chief among them being immediate need, available money, quarterback talent and the stability of the franchise brain trust. With that in mind, here is the case for the top three Bell suitors, ranked from strongest case to weakest:
The basics: The Colts have the youngest roster of “under contract” players for 2019. That gives their front office and coaching staff some leeway to splurge on a few seasoned veterans. Indianapolis also has a ton of money to spend next year if it chooses. Barring extensions before the offseason, the standardized salary-cap space for the Colts will be roughly $73 million. If allowable roll-over cap space from this season is calculated, Indianapolis can push offseason spending beyond $120 million in 2019. That’s an absurd amount of space – and it will factor in every NFL agent trying to get their clients into the mix with the franchise.
Andrew Luck is 29 and needs some force-multipliers next to him on offense. As a three-down “unicorn” running back, Bell fits that mold, meaning he should make Luck a better player – and in turn, more worth the franchise-quarterback contract he’s already being paid.
Why they’ll do it: Team owner Jim Irsay will never get over wasting some of Peyton Manning’s prime. And he’s got to feel some of Luck’s prime has been frittered away with injuries and some bad front-office management in the previous regime. So he will be on board with paying a special player like Bell to pair with his franchise centerpiece. General manager Chris Ballard spent enough time with the Kansas City Chiefs watching Jamaal Charles to know what a special three-down running back can do. Even head coach Frank Reich seems suited for a player like Bell, preferring to run multiple offensive personnel groups and formations, constantly looking for mismatch opportunities.
Few running backs in the NFL are more suited than Bell to being used in a multitude of ways, regardless of down and distance. Oh, and lest we forget, the Colts have an extra second-round pick to burn in 2019 from the New York Jets, thanks to the 2018 draft trade in the first round. That’s a very lucrative trade chip should it be dangled for Bell. And while the Colts could wait and sign Bell in the offseason without giving up a draft pick, he could make a difference right now. Maybe to the point of propelling the Colts back into the postseason.
Why they won’t: Ballard has a nice young team and he’s off to a good start when it comes to building from within and grooming. But there is also a lot of work ahead, and Ballard is believed to be an architect who prefers using free agency to accentuate, rather than overpaying for marquee pieces. Bell would be an overpay situation at a position that rarely justifies it. Bell also comes with baggage with the league’s drug-testing program and a holdout with the Steelers that might rub some suitors the wrong way. If it comes down to having to surrender a high pick (and a second-round pick for Bell would be a top-end price at this stage), Ballard may stay patient and continue stacking his roster through drafting and extending the growing talent base.
NEW YORK JETS
The basics: The next richest team with oodles of roll-over cash in 2019? That’s the Jets, who are looking at more than $100 million on the ledger in the offseason. The Jets also have the second-youngest roster of players under contract heading into next year with few seriously pressing contract extensions weighing on the immediate horizon. The quarterback spot is presumably resolved with promising rookie Sam Darnold, whose rookie deal will give the Jets an expansive opportunity to spend money all over the place for at least the next three offseasons. Head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan also are in a position where they could use some more wins and positive inflection points this season. Adding Bell behind Darnold could make the Jets the most interesting team in New York for at least the next half-decade.
Why they’ll do it: You can’t spend money in the next free-agency rotation if you don’t have a job. And if the Jets tank this season with Darnold, fans are likely to descend upon the practice facility with pitch forks and torches. While rookie quarterbacks can buy time for some regimes, it doesn’t feel like that will be the case with Bowles and Maccagnan. It may actually go in the opposite direction, with fans asking if the team can afford to leave Darnold in the hands of men who have repeatedly failed to get the franchise turned around. From that vantage, getting Bell sooner rather than later would seem to be a must. It would also instantly give Darnold a marquee offensive piece who could remove some of the heat and help speed up his growth curve. The Jets also have an extra third-round pick to offer from the Teddy Bridgewater trade with the Saints.
As for the money, if there’s any team that could have a massive “wink-wink” deal in place after a trade, it’s the Jets, who offered quarterback Kirk Cousins a three-year deal for $90 million guaranteed last offseason. They aren’t afraid to incinerate cash if it means landing a big fish.
Why they won’t: The Jets already traded their second- and sixth-round picks in next year’s draft. They added a third-round selection from the Saints, but there isn’t a ton of draft currency for a team that needs to add a lot of pieces over the next several seasons. The Jets simply may not have the pieces to get a deal done.
Then there’s the chance that there could be a total clean sweep in the offseason, with firings of the entire coaching staff and front office. If that’s a possibility, adding Bell in the middle of such an uncertain point wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Particularly knowing he can’t be signed until after the season.
Then there’s the inescapable reality that the Jets can wait and get Bell for nothing but cash in the offseason. Let’s be real: This isn’t a team likely to contend for a playoff spot with or without Bell. So why spend a draft pick now when 2019 and beyond is the target for growth and addition? From this view, the Jets could be patient and blow out an offer to Bell in a few more months.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The basics: The Buccaneers have a significant need at running back, with second-round pick Ronald Jones continuing to have issues getting onto the active roster this season. With a passing game that looks very impressive right now, adding a dynamic running back could make Tampa Bay’s offense extremely difficult to deal with, especially if the starting quarterback (whoever that may be) is playing well. But the key part of the structure that isn’t impressive? The salary cap.
Tampa Bay doesn’t have the cap space to add Bell right now, with roughly $6 million available. That means some deals would have to be restructured, which is doable. But the 2019 cap has about $25 million available and there are players to extend. The finances of this would be sticky.
Why they’ll do it: Desperation. The reality is quarterback Jameis Winston has to be a moderate success for this coaching staff and front office to survive long term. And that needs to start right now, with Winston due a contract extension after next season. Adding Bell to the current mix may finally get Winston to transform into the franchise centerpiece Tampa Bay thought it was getting. There’s also the reality that Tampa Bay is hanging around right now and very well might be in the playoff mix all season. Bell could significantly impact a postseason push that lifts all boats, from the coaching staff to the front office to Winston. That would be a big deal to ownership, which has to be getting antsy with the lack of a definitive forward leap in the past few seasons.
Why they won’t: Is Bell worth sacrificing other key players? With the Buccaneers’ cap situation in 2018 and 2019, someone would likely get left out in the cold. This is a team that still has to pay star linebacker Kwon Alexander and anchor guard Ali Marpet. Is Tampa Bay willing to lose one of those players for Bell after spending a second-round pick on Jones? Likely not.
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