The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem—a Le’Veon Bell problem. The star running back previously pulled out the retirement card in hopes of forcing the hand of the franchise to show him the money. Bell wants a long-term contract, which he’s been openly campaigning for quite some time now. Instead, the Steelers franchise tagged him for the second year in a row, guaranteeing him $14.544 million in 2018 provided that he signs the franchise tender.
Bell has threatened to walk away from the game if he does not get the lucrative multi-year deal he covets, although he’s since said that’s not really in play. Bell’s camp and the Steelers must agree to a long-term contract on or before July 16. Otherwise, Bell will have no option but to play under another franchise tag.
When he was tagged last year, he intentionally missed the entire offseason and the Steelers’ training camp before caving and signing a one-year deal worth $12.1 million. With how things are looking with regards to Bell’s situation, it looks like the All-Pro running back is going to have another holdout episode.
Whether Bell signs the franchise tender or not, he is still under control of the Steelers in 2018. The Steelers can always trade him, but that’s very unlikely. For the sake of this piece, let’s just assume that there’s a way –practical or fictitious — for Bell to play the 2018 campaign for any of the five teams we have listed below. More likely, he would sign with them following next season ahead of 2019.
5. Cleveland Browns
The Browns were bad in a lot of areas last season, including their ground game. They ranked just 18th in 2017 with only 107.1 rushing yards generated per outing, which is why shoring up the running back position was among the team’s top priority this offseason. The Browns already signed Carlos Hyde during the free agency period and used a second-round pick to get former Georgia Bulldog running back Nick Chubb, but Hyde is almost a safe bet to miss games due to injuries while Chubb is unproven at the professional level.
While the Steelers may not want to trade Bell to a team they would face twice a year, the Browns have the money to entice Pittsburgh to carry Bell’s financial burden, and the Steelers’ preferences won’t matter next offseason. According to Overthecap.com, the Browns still have the most available cap space in the NFL. And by the way, former Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley also works for the Browns now, so if Bell ended up in Cleveland, he should feel at home right away.
In short, the Browns could offer Bell sole ownership of the backfield, and more importantly, a big check.
4. New York Jets
Signing Isaiah Crowell, last year’s top rusher for the Browns, and former Seattle Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls helps address the Jets’ backfield needs, but those moves are not enough to convince the team that they should stop window shopping for better options.
Although the Jets were 15th in 2017 with a 43.39 running play percentage, they only finished 19th in rushing yards per game. Having a deep backfield (the Jet also still have Bilal Powell) led by Bell would not just dramatically improve their ground game, but also help take a lot of pressure off quarterback Sam Darnold’s shoulders in his first year in the NFL.
Money shouldn’t also be a problem for the Jets, as they currently have the seventh most salary cap space. Even though Bell said before to a Jets fan that $60 million would not be enough for him to play for the franchise, he should fancy the idea of being a star in New York.
3. Oakland Raiders
Unlike the Browns and the Jets, Oakland does not have deep pockets. In fact, they have the fourth weakest spending power with just a little over $6.1 million in cap space left, but if there’s a chance that Bell gets traded, the Raiders surely could find a way to create financial breathing room for a talent like him.
The Raiders entered the offseason coming off a disappointing campaign, finishing with just a 6-10 record and missing the boat to the playoffs thanks in part to a putrid backfield that did not get much from Marshawn Lynch.
The Raiders added Doug Martin to the fold and recently restructured Lynch’s contract, ensuring themselves of at least a decent backfield for 2018, but decent won’t cut it for the Raiders, who averaged just 97.1 rushing yards per game last season. Under head coach Jon Gruden, there is an increased focus on the Raiders’ ground game to deliver, and if Oakland is that committed to having a juggernaut offense, making a blockbuster deal to get Le’Veon Bell should not be out of the question.
The Raiders got a bit lucky when they found a franchise quarterback in Derek Carr. Now’s a good time for them to use expendable resources to get Carr a scary-good partner on offense.
2. New England Patriots
The Patriots are the Evil Empire of the NFL, so why not live up to the label if it means further boosting their Super Bowl chances? Pittsburgh probably won’t find it fun negotiating a deal that would give a fierce rival ownership of arguably the best running back in the league, but we should not underestimate the genius of Bill Belichick when it comes to acquiring talented personnel. Tom Brady says he plans to play two more seasons, so even adding Bell next offseason could be in play.
The Pats have always thrived, even without an elite NFL running back, with Belichick mostly resorting to a committee approach. However, Brady is turning 41; extending his career and maximizing his effectiveness depends more on how good the talent around him is today than it did in past seasons.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doug Martin is gone after mightily struggling last season in Tampa Bay. The Muscle Hamster’s departure leaves a void in the Bucs’ backfield that, for now, is expected to be filled by Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers, and rookie Ronald Jones. Those are not the kind of names Tampa Bay fans would prefer to hear when discussing the strength of the team’s running game, although there is some strong intrigue around Jones.
The Bucs badly need a game-changer in the backfield after a season in which they ranked 30th with just a 37.7 rush-play percentage. Bell would easily make the Bucs significantly more unpredictable and could unlock the remaining potential of extremely talented wide receiver Mike Evans downfield.
Bell going to Tampa Bay is a bit of a long shot, though, as the team only has $12 million left to spend for 2018.