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What would happen to the Steelers this season if Le’Veon Bell held out?

The Steelers could go 8 games without Bell. Would it be worth it?

SiriusXM At Super Bowl LII Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem. Their relationship with All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell is fraying beyond the point of repair, and it could torpedo the club’s Super Bowl hopes in 2018.

Bell’s impasse with the team that drafted him in 2013 reached a breaking point Monday when the deadline for the player and his team to reach a long-term contract passed without an extension for the playmaking back. That means Bell is set to play 2018’s season on a one-year, $14.544 deal under the franchise tag.

That’s a hefty payday and a raise from the $12.12m he’d made in 2017, but two straight years of franchise player salaries have eschewed the long term stability for which Bell has searched. That difference could make the upcoming season his last in Pittsburgh — and, if Adam Schefter’s hunch is correct, could make it a relatively brief one.

The holdout would put both sides in a compromised position. Bell would help protect himself from injury thanks to a lessened workload, but he could also hinder his value to interested general managers when he finally hits free agency. The Steelers wouldn’t be tied to a long-term contract at a position that’s been a low-cost priority for the rest of the league, but they’d also be without a key playmaker who helped lead last year’s third-ranked offense.

The good news for the Steelers is that it doesn’t sound like Bell will miss any regular season games after all. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that Bell would most likely stay away from training camp and the preseason, but be there when the games counted, which is what Bell did last year.

So what would 2018 look like in Pittsburgh should Bell decide to fully express his displeasure and rest his legs for the first half of the season before returning for the stretch run?

James Conner will have to prove his value

Conner will have the opportunity to prove he’s more than just an inspirational story should Bell decide the first half of the season isn’t for him. The second-year tailback was diagnosed Hodgkin’s lymphoma one year after a breakthrough 1,765-yard sophomore campaign at the University of Pittsburgh, but beat the deadly affliction to return with a 1,000-yard, 16-touchdown senior year.

The Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft to serve as Bell insurance, and that policy may come due in Conner’s sophomore year. Without Bell in the lineup, the young pro would slide into a starting spot and a major increase from the 2.3 carries per game he averaged as a rookie.

Conner was useful last fall. The good news is that he averaged an efficient 4.5 yards per carry. The bad news is he hasn’t had more than five carries in a pro game. While he was a workhorse in his 2014 pre-cancer breakout season, Pitt turned to him less often in 2016 — he went from 22.9 carries per game to 16.6. That doesn’t mean he’s not capable of handling a heavy workload in 2018 now that he’s three years removed from chemo treatments, but it does add an extra wrinkle to any possible ascension.

The bigger question surrounding him will be whether he can replicate any of the pressure-relieving talent Bell brings to the Steelers’ passing game. Ben Roethlisberger targeted his running backs 113 times in 2017. 106 of those targets went to Bell, who turned them into 85 catches and 665 yards. Conner showed off stronger receiving skills as a senior with the Panthers, where he made 21 of his 30 career NCAA receptions and all four of his college receiving touchdowns, but he’s still an unproven commodity in the passing game, especially compared to the gold standard set by Bell.

There isn’t much reliable depth on the Pittsburgh roster after Conner. The other running backs currently on the roster are Stevan Ridley (three NFL games played since 2015, though he was useful for the Steelers last fall), Fitzgerald Toussaint (six carries in ‘17), and undrafted free agents Jarvion Franklin and James Summers. There are a few options on the free agent pile who could add a little depth in case of a Bell outage as well. Shane Vereen could add a pass-catching out of the backfield, for example, while Alfred Morris was useful in spurts for the Cowboys last year.

Which important games would Bell miss?

Assuming Schefter’s educated guess of eight games holds true, here’s the schedule Bell would miss out on to kick off 2018:

Steelers Opponents, First 8 Games of 2018

Week Team 2017 Defensive Rank 2017 Rushing Defense Rank
Week Team 2017 Defensive Rank 2017 Rushing Defense Rank
1 Browns 13th 7th
2 Chiefs 28th 28th
3 Buccaneers 32nd 23rd
4 Ravens 12th 16th
5 Falcons 8th 9th
6 Bengals 18th 30th
8 Browns 13th 7th
9 Ravens 12th 16th

The good news for Pittsburgh is that he’d miss two games against the Browns. The bad news is that he’d also miss two games against the Ravens, the biggest obstacle between Pittsburgh and a repeat AFC North crown. Games against 2017 playoff squads like the Chiefs and Falcons also loom, though each has to visit Heinz Field. None of those teams had elite rushing defenses who could run roughshod over an emerging young back like Conner last fall, and it’s easy to see how the Steelers could run out to a solid start in 2018 even without Bell in the lineup.

The back half of the schedule is much more challenging. Four of the team’s final eight games come against last year’s playoff teams, including both sides of the most recent AFC Championship game. Having a fresh Bell could be a boon at that point — assuming he can catch back up to game speed without any major hiccups.

Le’Veon Bell would have to thrive in a difficult situation

Bell has proven enough over his first five seasons as a pro to justify a high-value contract in 2019 regardless of his 2018 output, but the most reliable way to secure the biggest possible deal would be to have another typically great season for the Steelers this fall.

That would be tough to do in just eight games. While his fresh legs would give him the chance to grind up opposing defenses, he’s coming back against a tough lineup and for a team that will have spent the past two months of live play maximizing its non-Bell weapons. Factor in any added rust that could come with Bell going nearly 10 months without any live-action game experience, and it’s not difficult to see how he could struggle to play up to the All-Pro standard he’s set.

The other option for Bell, if injury concerns truly are the driving force behind a potential midseason holdout, would be to insure himself against a career-changing injury. Players like Devonta Freeman and Tony Romo have each taken out high-value policies to cover the risk of losing future paychecks due to on-field maladies. It cost Romo approximately $150,000 to lock down a $30 million policy. Freeman paid $50,000 for $10 million in coverage a decade later. That 1:200 ratio, at least anecdotally, seems to be the basic guide for NFL insurance payouts.

Paying off the premium of an nine-figure payout would be an expensive venture for Bell, but it would be less costly than losing eight weeks of paychecks in a season where he’s set to earn more than $14.5 million.

There’s no easy solution to the impasse between Bell and the Steelers. Bell wants the security he’s earned over five years as one of Pittsburgh’s most dynamic weapons. The Steelers see a sixth-year back whose yards-per-carry number fell in 2017 and who already stands to make more than 11 times the average running back salary under his franchise tender. Any compromise that could have been reached is now out the window as of 3pm July 16.

But that doesn’t mean 2018 can’t be a win for both sides — although that scenario is likely one where Bell plays as many games as he can this fall.