It won’t be Bell’s fault. He’ll likely be the best running back in the NFL for the duration of his contract — or close to it. But spending $14.5 with the franchise tag on him in 2018 or signing him to a mega-contract simply doesn’t make sense. There are too many other creative running back solutions. With a little scouting, negotiation and effort in cap management, the Steelers can put Bell’s money to better use.
In 2017, Bell was all that the team could ask him to be from a production standpoint. (From an attitude standpoint, not so much — and we’ll get to that.) While getting paid $12 million, Bell finished the season with 1,291 rushing yards, 655 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. He fell just short of 2,000 yards from scrimmage, an incredible achievement.
The problem for Bell — and all running backs — is that $12 million (or $14.5 million) can easily buy an NFL team 2,000 yards from scrimmage at the running back position. Heck, it should buy a whole lot more. Look at the New England Patriots. Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead and James Develin cost the Patriots $11,917,422 in 2017. That’s slightly less than the figure Bell earned. But from those backs, the Patriots got 2,664 yards from scrimmage and 25 total touchdowns.
Yes, Bill Belichick is a salary cap wizard. But let’s not give him too much credit. The New Orleans Saints accomplished a similar task. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined to earn just over $6 million while managing 3,094 yards from scrimmage with 25 total touchdowns. The Eagles spent $2.4 million on LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood, who produced 2,036 yards from scrimmage with 12 touchdowns. They also had to throw in a fourth-round pick to get Ajayi off the Dolphins’ hands. But the Eagles’ backs made a fifth of what Bell earned and still outperformed him.
Final example: Even the New York Jets, who are spending (wasting?) $9.4 million on running backs Matt Forte, Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire, got 2,108 yards and 10 total touchdowns from their trio.
The Steelers just need to get a little resourceful. Take a shot at a running back in the draft. Put pressure on the pro scouting department to identify the right talent for the team.
Heck, pay for Lewis, who is basically Bell-lite and is projected to make $5 million per year, according to Spotrac. Then they’d still have money leftover to add Carlos Hyde at $5.8 million per year and draft a young back on the third day to develop and throw into the mix. Those are two of the top guys. There’s even better value if the Steelers take a look at Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, Thomas Rawls, Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa could all prove to be good-value free agents and strong contributors to Pittsburgh’s potent offense.
With $14.5 million hitting the cap from the franchise tag, the Steelers could have plenty of room to fill their depth chart and have money to spend on another position, too. And frankly, they could bring in players who won’t skip practice on the day before the AFC divisional round or threaten to retire during the week before the playoff game. Why reward that behavior with a huge contract?
Bell, from a production standpoint, can’t possibility be worth the money he’s going to get. And if 2017 was any indicator, he’s probably not worth the headache.
The only reason they seem to be keeping him around is because he’s already around. That just feels lazy,