Le’Veon Bell spent six years and five active seasons as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Now, after an acrimonious divorce from the team that drafted him, he’ll start the second chapter of his career with the New York Jets.
Former Steelers’ RB Le’Veon Bell plans to sign with…the New York Jets, a league source tells ESPN— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 13, 2019
The three-time All-Pro running back will sign a deal with New York, ending a would-be free agency saga after more than two years of drama. The contract is reportedly a four-year, $52.5 million deal that could be worth up to $61 million with incentives. $35 million of that is guaranteed — significantly more than the $10 million in guarantees the Steelers had reportedly offered in 2018, though that cash would have expanded to $33 million over two years if Bell stayed in Pittsburgh.
The move is one that will get the elusive tailback back on the gridiron after an extended holdout. Bell and the Steelers failed to see eye-to-eye on a long-term contract after his rookie deal expired at the end of the 2016 season, leaving the team to retain him with its franchise tag in 2017 and then again in 2018. Rather than play out last year’s $14.54 million one-year contract, the star running back sat out the season in a combination of protest and preservation, leaving him fresh for 2019 — and with plenty of questions to answer with his new team.
Bell took to Twitter Wednesday morning to (sort of) declare his intentions.
I’m back in the green baby, let’s get it— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) March 13, 2019
Yet for as long as Bell has waited to get his shot at free agency, the announcement comes rather anticlimactically, especially compared to what else has happened around the NFL. Over the weekend, Bell’s former teammate, Antonio Brown, was traded to the Raiders. The league has seen a flurry of other moves that include players from Nick Foles to Landon Collins land bigger deals than expected. And hours before Bell’s new team was unveiled, Odell Beckham Jr. and Dee Ford were traded.
Plus, the Jets have long been the favorites to land Bell. The only real surprise was that Bell didn’t reveal where he’d be signing his on his new album that dropped at midnight.
What can he bring to the Jets?
Bell’s got plenty of questions to answer now he’s finally found the contract for which he’s been searching. He was a dual-threat workhorse in his five years with the Steelers, providing an electric ground game but also serving as a valuable asset out of the backfield in the team’s passing attack. He had 106 targets and 85 receptions in 15 games in 2017, tiring out overwhelmed linebackers and helping push the Pittsburgh offense to elite levels in the process.
But that 2017 and the holdout year that followed raise questions. Bell ran for nearly 1,300 yards, but he also led the league in carries with more than 21 per game. His yards per rush declined from 4.9 in 2016 to 4.0 in 2017. Was that precipitous drop a symptom of overuse? Or was it an indicator that the every-down mileage he’d racked up over five seasons could be catching up to him?
New York is betting a full season of rest and the motivation of proving his doubters wrong will unlock the perennial Pro Bowl form for which the Steelers were unwilling to cough up major guarantees. Even a worn-down Bell managed to average nearly 130 yards from scrimmage per game and score 11 touchdowns, so it’s not as though a steady 2017-level performance from the tailback would be a disappointment.
The Jets made Bell the centerpiece of a statement-making offseason. New York entered the week by upgrading its linebacker corps with a record-setting deal for C.J. Mosley. — a player who will make nearly $4 million more than Bell annually despite playing a non-pass rushing role. Anthony Barr was also on the to-do list, but his reticence to move east freed up the extra cash that helped push the team’s offer to the former Steeler to the top of his list.
That’s two monster signings for the AFC East’s worst team, but there’s plenty of work still to be done. Bell’s presence will give second-year quarterback Sam Darnold a valuable weapon who can give him some relief both as a runner and receiver, but if the Jets are going to follow the example the Rams and Bears set with Jared Goff and Mitchell Trubisky, respectively, they’re going to have to add more playmakers. Those young quarterbacks made giant strides in their second year as a pro after their front offices surrounded them with chain-moving talent at receiver, tight end, and tailback.
Adding Bell helps both a depleted receiving corps and one of the league’s least efficient running attacks. The club can make more moves after coming into the offseason with more than $80 million in cap space to spend, too — though the market for receiving help is unremarkable this spring.
Still, if the goal is to compete in 2019, the Jets may have to settle for some overpriced veteran talent due to their relative lack of draft capital; their second-round pick belongs to the Colts thanks to the deal that put them in position to draft Darnold. Their first-round pick — third overall — is a prime position to add a defensive star, but not necessarily an offensive one.
What’s Adam Gase going to do with Bell?
Gase gets the biggest playmaker of his coaching career in Bell, though whether or not Darnold is an upgrade from Ryan Tannehill is up for debate at this point. His Miami teams spammed passes to running back Kenyan Drake, who finished second on the team with 73 targets — though that may have more to do with an inefficient receiving corps than any specific gameplan for Drake.
Bell could take that role to new heights after having an average of seven passes per game thrown his way in 2017. Given the state of the Jets’ receiving corps, that may be Gase’s best option. The Jets’ top receiving option over the past two seasons, former undrafted free agent Robby Anderson, is back with the team after signing a one-year tender as a restricted free agent this spring.
After him, Darnold’s cast of targets now includes Quincy Enunwa, Jamison Crowder, and Josh Bellamy — a decent supporting cast, but one without an obvious star who can carry the offense in tight situations. Things are even dicier at tight end, where only Chris Herndon and Jordan Leggett are under contract.
The good news is Herndon is coming off a solid rookie campaign (39 catches, 502 yards) and should only get stronger in 2019. Bell’s ability to torch linebackers out of the backfield will help divert attention over the middle of the field, easing the pressure on Darnold and giving Gase a little more latitude to throw the ball. The Jets still need playmakers — and a relatively weak free agent crop won’t provide many answers — but it’s easy to see how Bell can help Darnold make strides in year two as a pro.
Can Bell prove the Steelers wrong?
Bell’s stand against Pittsburgh was the result of the franchise’s rarely broken rule of only guaranteeing the first year of its major contract extensions. That lack of up-front cash helped chase Antonio Brown out of western PA and now, after a years-long struggle, Bell’s finally got the financial security he’d been waiting on — and at 27 years old, the chance to prove he’s not just a star but a Hall of Famer.
And to prove that $60 million is, in fact, enough to come run with the Jets.
He’s got plenty of expectations to fulfill. Bell reportedly wanted to be paid like a top-tier running back and starting wideout at the same time, and while he didn’t get the market-resetting $17 million annual paycheck he’d hoped he’s still likely one of the league’s highest-paid tailbacks. At the Jets’ price, more than $13 million annually, he’s expected to turn in more than just a couple token Pro Bowl appearances — he has to make New York better.
Pittsburgh soldiered on with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels last fall. That duo bettered Bell’s 2017’s yards-per-carry mark by more than half a yard, but they weren’t able to fully replicate the total package the veteran’s dynamic style of play brought to the backfield. The Steelers’ rough season last fall wasn’t because of Bell’s absence — there were a litany of problems in the Steel City in 2018, including the Brown drama and an uncharacteristically uneven defense — but his presence was missed as the club skidded through the back end of its 2018 schedule to miss the playoffs.
Now he can prove he’s a difference maker by fueling the Jets’ rebuild and turning a dumbstruck franchise into a contender once more. Rebuilding New York into a playoff team would be the biggest accomplishment of Bell’s career, and his two-way talent makes him the perfect component to take the pressure from Darnold’s shoulders.
But it won’t be easy. The Jets are coming off a 4-12 season that was borderline unwatchable, and Bell is going from a top-five NFL offense to one that ranked 29th in yards gained last season. Acquiring 2019’s top offensive free agent is one hell of a way to kick off a rebuild — but now Bell has to prove he can be an agent of change like Curtis Martin was before him and not just a good player on a bad team like Matt Forte.