“I’m at the top and if not I’m the closest, I’m a need 15 a year and they know this …”
Those were Le’Veon Bell’s words in a rap he released last month, an apparent (if informal) request for $15 million per season on his new contract, which would leapfrog him past Adrian Peterson as the game’s highest-paid running back. Bell later walked back that number in an interview with ESPN.com—“I’m not a real greedy guy. I don’t play football just for money or things like that.”—but it’s clear the Steelers will have to step to the plate with a significant offer to replace Bell’s expiring rookie deal.
The challenge for Steelers GM Kevin Colbert will be figuring out exactly who it is he is paying for.
Bell arguably is the best running back in football right now (he just landed No. 1 on our positional rankings). He also is coming off a major knee injury and now, as of Friday, reportedly is facing a second straight year with an early-season suspension. Bell is currently appealing a four-game suspension for missed drug tests, per multiple reports; he had to sit out Weeks 1 and 2 of 2015 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
So, when Colbert crafts an inevitable contract offer, he first will have to decide just how reliable he believes Bell to be. The off-field issues now could linger over the remainder of Bell’s career, with another infraction costing him at least 10 games and possibly sidelining him for a season, as is the case with teammate Martavis Bryant this season.
And on top of that issue, Bell has been absent for 13 regular-season and three postseason games during his brief, three-year career. There is no good way to guard against injury, especially at RB, but the 24-year-old Bell carries far more of a history in that regard than is ideal. Running backs already are viewed as having a short career life span compared to other positions.
Pittsburgh is fortunate to have DeAngelo Williams as a fallback. Colbert scored the ex-Panther last off-season at a bargain price of $4 million over two years—that sale no doubt occurring in part because Williams is in his 30s and piled up greater than 8,000 touches in Carolina.
Williams helped saved the Steelers in 2015 after Bell’s season-ending MCL injury. He rushed for 907 yards and 11 TDs (tied for the league lead), plus chipped in 40 catches. He’ll again be atop the depth chart early this coming season, assuming Bell’s reported suspension is not overturned.
For as nice as it is to have depth, though, the Steelers keep running into this problem. Bryant already has been banned for the year by the league, meaning there was no chance of Pittsburgh getting its full offense on the field together in 2016. Last season was a similar story, with Bell, Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum all missing extended stretches for one reason or another. Pouncey sat out the entire season after tearing his ACL.
That’s why we have to keep talking about the Steelers’s offense in the hypothetical: “What if they get all their pieces out there together? How good could these guys be?” At this point, those questions have become like a football Sasquatch hunt. We may never know the answers for sure.
Make no mistake about it, even with Williams proving to have plenty left in the tank, losing Bell is a substantial hit for the Steelers. Argue amongst yourselves about Bell’s place in the running-back pecking order, but losing him robs a Super Bowl hopeful of a brilliant and dynamic playmaker. Williams was very good in 2015 but he—and the offense overall—would be better if he were part of a 1-2 punch with Bell, as opposed to the de facto lead dog.
Pittsburgh opens with a tough schedule: at Washington, Cincinnati, at Philadelphia, Kansas City. Last season, the Steelers opened 2-2 and later needed a Week 17 win plus a Jets loss to squeak into the playoffs as a wild card. They would love a better beginning in 2016, but they will have to make it happen down both Bell and Bryant.
Long-term, this could shift the team’s plans outside of mere contract talks, too. Pittsburgh did not use a 2016 draft pick on a running back but may feel compelled to do so in 2017, if only to guard against another Bell loss. Williams will turn 34 next off-season and could hit the free-agent market.
One way or another, the Steelers will get Bell locked up for at least 2017, be it via the franchise tag (at around $12 million), a record-setting extension or some more cap-friendly third option.
How long they hope to lock him up and how much they’re willing to spend in the process will depend on the organization’s trust in Bell to stay on the field. A trust that has to be growing more and more difficult to maintain.