The talk over the next few weeks will center around whether Le’Veon Bell’s four-year, $52.5 million deal justifies his decision to sit out 2018 rather than play in Pittsburgh under the $14.54-million franchise tag. On the surface, the answer appears to be no, given that Bell’s new annual salary will reportedly average just over $13 million, second among NFL running backs to only the Rams’ Todd Gurley ($14.375 million). But as Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio recently explained, judgment of Bell’s 2019 deal and ’18 decision will be in the eye of the beholder, and it’s not as simple as annual salary vs. franchise tag value.
And so let’s stay out of those weeds and shift our attention to where this move actually matters: on the field. Recently hired Jets head coach Adam Gase loves a good receiving back. He’s never had a top-shelf one, but in his first year with the Dolphins, Gase took pride in some of his offense’s unique adjustments whenever underrated pass-catching back Damian Williams (now a Chief) was on the field. This continued in 2017 and ’18 with Kenyan Drake. When defenses started focusing on the run, Gase, a passing game connoisseur, would take umbrage and motion his running back out wide, creating an empty-backfield formation. From there he’d attack through the air.
With Bell, those empty-backfield formations may well become the foundation of Gase’s passing game. Bell was predominantly a weakside slot receiver in Pittsburgh’s empty sets, where he could work the middle of the field and execute nearly the full route tree.
Yours truly wrote a few weeks ago that cheaper free-agent tailback Tevin Coleman offered better value than Bell because, though not as dynamic a receiver as Bell, Coleman could more than suffice through the air. The one counter-argument I heard from some coaches at the NFL combine is that Bell has the ability to change directions in his route running, creating separation in a variety of ways, including late in the down. Coleman, on the other hand, like most receiving backs, is a one-cut mover. He can run hardwired slant patterns, but not the variety of pivot and option routes that Bell runs.
What’s interesting, though, is that every coach agreed that Coleman, with his long-striding speed, is a better pure outside zone runner than Bell. Gase over the years has mostly featured classic outside zone runs. Bell, of course, is a better interior runner than Coleman (and maybe any NFL back). His uncanny patience and vision work to set up a lineman’s on-the-move block and to prolong double-team blocks. (Plus, it’s not like Bell isn’t still threatening on those traditional outside zone runs himself.)
Bringing in Bell suggests Gase will expand his rushing scheme. This might explain why the Jets, who have known all along they’d be major players for Bell, traded for Raiders Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele on Sunday. The quickest—and maybe only—way to schematically expand your rushing attack is to get a quality guard. That’s the key position in almost every run-blocking design. With Osemele and Bell together, Gase can build one of football’s most diverse ground games.
Another defining trait of Gase’s scheme will be splitting the tight end alone on the weak side of the formation, with all wide receivers on the other side. Gase, like some in the Jets front office, believes last year’s fourth-round tight end Chris Herndon is a budding star. With Bell aboard, Gase can now leverage running back routes with those tight end routes, creating an either-or combination that puts weakside defenders in a bind. (The Patriots do this masterfully with Rob Gronkowski and James White, especially in the red zone.)
And the last defining trait of Gase’s offense is its use of the slot receiver. Gase wants inside receivers who can run after the catch. The Jets recently agreed to terms with one of the league’s best: ex-Redskin Jamison Crowder. Now, they just need to find a quality perimeter receiver to pair with Robby Anderson. Do that and this offense, built around Le’Veon Bell, has everything it needs to run Gase’s scheme and help develop young QB Sam Darnold.
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