The “take” that earned the most blowback in my Top 100 Free Agent rankings last week was having Falcons running back Tevin Coleman at No. 6, three spots ahead of two-time All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, whose futurehasbeenwell-chronicled since he opted not to play for the Steelers under the franchise tag in 2018. I understand the umbrage. Bell’s uniquely patient running style—which comes from great vision and athletic balance—is an excellent fit in any rushing scheme, but especially “inside zone” and “gap scheme” (think man-to-man blocking, with pullers and lead-blockers). His slow-developing runs give double-teams more time to generate power and lead-blockers easier targets, as defenders, reacting to Bell, tend to stop their feet.
Coleman, on the other hand, is more of a pure outside zone runner, with long-striding speed to get to the perimeter. When he does run inside, it’s on the “one cut and Go!” that outside zone blocking presents.
And though Coleman can adequately execute the inside runs that define Bell’s game—and Bell can certainly execute the outside runs that define Coleman’s—one can still argue that, overall, Bell gives a ground game more dimension than Coleman does.
And speaking of dimension, most pro-Bell debaters quickly bring up his receiving prowess. (I myself have done this regularly over the years.) “Bell is a better receiver than many teams’ No. 2 wideouts,” says every announcer who has called a Steelers game since 2016. And maybe that’s true. But stylistically, Coleman is an equally flexible receiver, with experience catching passes not just from the backfield but also out wide and from the slot. Even if Bell is a “great” receiver and Coleman, by comparison, is only a “good” one, their impact is mostly the same. Because the value of a receiving back is in creating a coverage mismatch against a linebackers or box safety. Here a “good” receiving back is good enough, as the linebackers—or box safeties—who can’t cover Bell also can’t cover Coleman. (Just like they can’t cover New England’s James White, who is much less dynamic than Bell or Coleman but can still be immensely productive in the Patriots’ offense.) And sure, there might be more cornerbacks who can’t cover Bell, but the only way a “corner vs. running back” battle ensues is if a defense is in a four-corner dime package. That almost never occurs on possible running downs, which is when Bell’s and Coleman’s receiving flexibility is most valuable.
And so the meat of the debate between the value of Bell and Coleman is in the ground game, which brings us to this theoretical question: What do we really cherish in a running back? Bell’s patient, balletic style lends itself to sustainability; he wears down opponents by consistently getting on base (so to speak). Coleman, whose long-striding speed creates breakaway runs, is more of a home run hitter. Since 2015, Coleman has gained 20-plus yards once every 25 carries; Bell has gained 20-plus yards once every 46 carries. (And it’s worth noting that Bell had zero runs of 30 yards or more in 2017.) Next to the turnover battle, explosive plays are the biggest determinant in winning and losing.
Of course, explosive gains are not the main objective on running plays, which is why Bell averaging 11.4 more carries per game than Coleman over the last three years means something. But here you don’t necessarily compare just Bell to Coleman; you compare Bell’s production to the production of Coleman plus whatever No. 2 back he shares the load with. Those No. 2 backs are a dime a dozen, as every draft has a handful of mid- to late-round picks who become productive rotational runners. Coleman himself was one of these guys, entering the league as a third-round pick and playing second fiddle to Devonta Freeman.
Coleman’s more limited role has put less mileage on his 25-year-old body. Bell’s 2018 holdout saved his 27-year-old body from more miles, and because his patient running style has so much nuanced movement, defenders don’t always get the same clean shots on him that they do on other backs. Still, Bell’s 1,545 touches in 62 games over his career are not insignificant. Wear and tear is a factor.
Even so, let’s say Bell over the next three years continues to get nearly 25 touches per game and still perform at a high level. How much does almost 25 touches really matter? At the Super Bowl this year, I asked roughly a dozen Rams and Patriots players about the difference between Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson. Everyone said the same two things: L.A.’s play-calling is the same for Gurley and Anderson, but they’re two very different runners. The Patriots especially emphasized this because, unlike Rams blockers, they had to adjust their approach for Gurley’s and Anderson’s contrasting styles. The point? A running back committee doesn’t just preserve a tailback’s body, it also forces an opponent to defend more styles of play.
This is where Coleman’s value really separates from Bell’s. Coleman will likely be signed to lead a rotation. Bell will look to be signed as a one-man band. Besides it being debatable whether a one-man band is even that much better than a nice rotational back, there’s the not-so-little matter of the one-man band, in this case, costing drastically more than the rotational guy.
Bell is reportedly looking for around $17 million per year and presumably much more than the $33 million guaranteed that he turned down from Pittsburgh last year. His best hope of even coming close is if some team, thanks to the ever-rising salary cap, has a big enough surplus to accommodate wild, even reckless spending. And still that might not be enough given that wild, reckless spending can also apply to blockers, receivers and defensive players. All financial factors being equal, the Coleman vs. Bell debate is a close one. But add in finances and it’s not close at all. Coleman, who is more explosive than Bell, offers the best bang for the buck.
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