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Will Le’Veon Bell be a Steeler in 2019? Odds on the RB’s Future

Matt McEwan

by Matt McEwan in NFL Football

Jul 17, 2018 · 2:50 PM PDT

Le'Veon Bell being tackles by Ravens defenders
Le'Veon Bell's numbers took a huge hit in 2017 when playing under the franchise tag. Was it a coincidence or is there a trend there? (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)
  • Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers could not agree on a long-term extension ahead of the deadline
  • Bell will play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive season
  • Should Steeler fans expect this to be Bell’s last season in Pittsburgh?

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell, along with every other team who has used their franchise tag, had until yesterday’s (July 16) 4pm EST deadline to negotiate a new contract, or Bell would play the 2018 NFL season under the roughly $14.5 million franchise tag.

The two sides could not agree on a deal, as it was reported Bell turned down a five-year, $70 million deal – average of $14 million per season. This means the 26-year-old will play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive season, and likely become an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

Though the $14 million per season Pittsburgh was offering may seem like a lot of money, Bell wishes to be paid as an elite offensive weapon, not just a running back. The position has long been underappreciated when it comes contract time, and it’s clear the former second-round pick wishes to change that.

Last season, Bell led the league in rushing attempts with 321, and his 406 touches were an all-time single-season high in the NFL – surpassing David Johnson’s 373 from 2016. In five seasons in the pros, Bell has averaged 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game, which is the most since 1970. And in 2016, he averaged 157 yards from scrimmage per game, which stands as the fourth-best single-season average in NFL history.

Average Salaries by Position

Top Paid RBs in 2018 (Average Salary) QBs Making More $ Than Bell in 2018 WRs Making More $ Than Bell in 2018
Le’Veon Bell ($14.5M) Joe Flacco ($22.13M) Antonio Brown ($17M)
Devonta Freeman ($8.25M) Sam Bradford ($20M) Mike Evans ($16.5M)
LeSean McCoy ($8M) Ryan Tannehill ($19.25M) DeAndre Hopkins ($16.2M)
Jerick McKinnon ($7.5M) Blake Bortles ($18M) Sammy Watkins ($16M)
Leonard Fournette ($6.78M) Case Keenum ($18M) Jarvis Landry ($15.1M)
Lamar Miller ($6.5M) Andy Dalton ($16M) AJ Green ($15M)

Of course, there are a lot more QBs than that who make more money than Bell, but these were just the ones I wanted to highlight. Here are some further notes regarding the table above:

  • Joe Flacco’s passer rating over the last three seasons is 82.4, and only has two seasons above 89
  • Sam Bradford has started 38 games over the last five seasons
  • Blake Bortles’ career passer rating is 80.8
  • Jarvis Landry led the league in receptions in 2017 with 112 and added one rushing attempt; Bell touched the ball more than 3.5 times more than Landry last season
  • Antonio Brown led the league in receiving yards last season with 1,533; Bell totaled 1,946 yards from scrimmage in 2017

I’m sure you can understand why Bell believes he is worth more – or at least as much – as many of these players.

And another pill that’s been tough to swallow for Bell is his minimal career earnings to this point. Because the two-time All-Pro back was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft (48th overall), he only made a little over $4 million in total over his first four seasons in the league.

Le’Veon Bell vs Ezekiel Elliott

LeVeon Bell
Ezekiel Elliott

As one of the most productive backs in NFL history, it’s easy to understand why Bell is seeking top RB + no. 2 WR money. But will he get it? Will he stay in Pittsburgh? And will he even play in Week 1 of the 2018 regular season?

Will Bell Play in Week 1 of the 2018 Regular Season?

1-4 4-1

Bell skipped training camp last season, waiting until just a few days before Week 1 kickoff to sign his franchise tender. The move clearly had a negative impact on Bell through the first three weeks of the season, as he only totaled 236 yards from scrimmage and just 3.46 yards per carry in that time.

But 2018’s holdout could extend even longer. Bell originally suggested he could sit out the first half of the season, limiting his potential for injury, so he can enter 2019 free agency healthy. Fortunately for Steelers fans, that no longer appears to be the plan.

Whether he is ready or not, expect Bell on the field when the Steelers head to Cleveland in Week 1.

Will Bell Get Paid his Asking Price?

Over/Under Average Salary for Bell’s Next Contract $16M

Bell has reportedly been asking for an average of $17 million per year. Although the numbers may suggest he’s worth it, I cannot see any team offering it. What he may be won over with is a contract with more guaranteed money than the reported $33 million (of $70 million) the Steelers were willing to guarantee.

I don’t expect this to come from the Steelers, though.

Odds on Where Bell Plays in 2019

Team Odds to Sign Le’Veon Bell in 2019
New York Jets 3-1
Pittsburgh Steelers 4-1
Indianapolis Colts 9-2
Houston Texans 7-1
FIELD 19-6

In spite of Bell’s insistence that he wishes to remain a Steeler for life, there are teams who will be able to offer him more money in free agency. Right now, the New York Jets are projected to have nearly $84.5 million in cap space for the 2019 season, and an elite running back (who doubles as a great receiver) would be a great way to ease Sam Darnold into the pros.

The Colts and Texans will also have quite a bit of cap space (roughly $58.7 million and $54.1 million, respectively) for the 2019 season. Teaming Andrew Luck or Deshaun Watson up with Le’Veon Bell would be a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, the Steelers only have about $15.8 million in cap space for the 2019 season, as Antonio Brown’s massive extension kicks in. It’s tough to imagine Pittsburgh being able to match the offers of the three aforementioned teams, and you’d assume the relationship between Bell and the Steelers has already been strained enough.

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