He finally made it. After getting hit with the franchise tag two seasons in a row, Le’Veon Bell will finally get to test free agency. The Pittsburgh Steelers won’t tag him a third time, giving the running back a chance to sign a deal that will give him the long-term security that he’s been chasing.
He should get it, too. Bell is an elite offensive weapon who we’ve seen have stretches of pure dominance for the Steelers over the years. The last time Bell stepped on the field, he finished third in the league with 1,291 rushing yards and chipped in 655 receiving yards as well.
Part of why Bell is such an intriguing free agent this offseason is that we know he’s talented — but he hasn’t played in over a year. The 27-year-old didn’t play last season after refusing to sign the franchise tender that would have paid him $14.5 million in 2018.
It’s been a while, so what does Bell bring to the table?
When healthy and on the field, Bell is one of the best offensive players in the league. From 2014 to 2017, Bell ran for 4,476 yards, ranking third in the NFL over that time span. Bell also contributed 2,261 receiving yards over those four seasons.
What makes Bell a unique runner is his patience behind the line of scrimmage. Bell will wait for a hole to come open before exploding through for a big gain. Here’s an example from one of the Steelers’ games against the Ravens in 2017.
Bell’s ability to elude defenders also makes him a lethal weapon as a receiver out of the backfield.
Even with the year off in 2018, the idea of adding Bell has to be tantalizing for almost every team in the league. However, Bell’s services won’t be cheap, especially for a player who has said in the past he wants to be paid like a No. 1 running back and No. 2 receiver.
Here are four teams that could make a legitimate run at Bell in the offseason.
The Colts have an abundance of cap space to use to sign Bell. Indianapolis is projected to have more than $107 million in cap space, according to Spotrac — the highest number in the league.
That signing would give the Colts an offense with Andrew Luck, Bell, and a fierce offensive line featuring rookie All-Pro Quenton Nelson. Indianapolis also has promising young running backs Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines that would fit well with Bell.
Bell would immediately become the top dog as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. In this scenario, Bell would be in store for a ton of targets since the Colts aren’t loaded with receiving options outside of T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron. Hines was a solid receiver as a rookie. He averaged 6.7 yards per catch in 2018, which is much lower than Bell’s career mark of 8.5 yards per catch.
While a marriage between the Colts and Bell would make sense, there are two factors making Indianapolis a less likely destination for Bell. First, general manager Chris Ballard hasn’t really invested high resources into the running back position. None of Mack, Hines, or Jordan Wilkins were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.
Then there’s the fact that the Colts’ running game was just fine with their trio of Day 3 running backs. Indianapolis had the 13th-ranked rushing offense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
The Colts’ first priorities should be to inject some talent into their defense and wide receiver group with their boatload of cap space. But if they went after Bell, he would absolutely be the best running back on their roster.
New York Jets
Simply put, the Jets need playmakers and have the cap space to take a major swing at Bell. The Jets are the only other team in the NFL that has $100 million in cap space right now. This is a big offseason for them; they’re heading into 2019 with second-year quarterback Sam Darnold and a new head coach with the hire of Adam Gase. There’s going to be a transition period — surrounding Darnold with talent could help him take a leap in his second season.
Adding Bell would give Darnold and Gase an All-Pro caliber presence in the backfield and a reliable player to lean on during their offensive transition.
The Jets’ running back depth chart is pretty barren right now. Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, and Elijah McGuire aren’t in the same realm as Bell. Crowell had a decent season with 685 yards in 13 games, but he’s expected to be released this offseason.
McGuire led all Jets running backs with 193 receiving yards in eight games last year. Bell would provide an elite checkdown option for Darnold and make a nice pair of receiving backs with McGuire.
The Raiders have a chance to quickly turn around their misfortune from a year ago. Oakland has a lot of cap space and three first-round picks in this year’s draft. Their defense was porous last year, but that shouldn’t stop the Raiders from adding offensive playmakers this offseason. They averaged just 5.4 yards per play on offense, ranking 22nd in the league.
Oakland’s offense could use some juice after trading away wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cowboys for a first-round pick. The Raiders are probably going to give Derek Carr at least one more year to prove he can be their franchise quarterback, so why not give him all the tools he needs to succeed?
Bell could come in and be the Raiders’ best option in the run game and the pass game. DeAndre Washington is the only experienced running back on the Raiders with a contract in place for the upcoming season (Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin are free agents while Jalen Richard is a restricted free agent). Bell would make sense as a bellcow back for an old-school coach like Jon Gruden — if the Raiders don’t mind ponying up the dough.
It would certainly be a big splash signing for a team getting ready to move to Las Vegas.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers haven’t been tied to Bell much, but they could be an under-the-radar fit. They don’t have as much cap space as the other teams mentioned — they’re about at the league average. Green Bay isn’t usually a heavy spender in free agency, either. But giving Aaron Rodgers, and new offensive-minded coach Matt LaFleur, a weapon like Bell could help the Packers get back to the playoffs after missing them for two straight years.
Not only would Rodgers and Bell become one of the top offensive duos in the league, but Bell would also jell nicely with running back Aaron Jones, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season.
Bell, Jones, and Jamaal Williams would be a dynamic trio of receiving backs. Jones and Williams both averaged more than 7.8 yards per reception, which is right around where Bell was for his final season with the Steelers.
Davante Adams is the only veteran receiver under contract with the Packers. It never hurts to add another dynamic target for Rodgers — and another reason to keep him happy.