The deadline for teams to sign franchise-tagged players to long-term deals is July 17. With that in mind, here are the cases for and against the Pittsburgh Steelers inking running back Le’Veon Bell to a multi-year deal:
The arguments for the Steelers extending Bell are obvious. If he’s not the best running back in the league, he’s at least among the top three. His combination of size, speed, and patience is unmatched. Last season, he finished fifth in rushing yards despite playing in just 12 games.
Over the past two years, Bell averaged a shade under 5 yards per carry. When he’s handed the ball out of the backfield, he averages halfway to a first down. That kind of dependability puts him in the top tier at his position, and makes him an indispensable cog in Pittsburgh’s lineup.
Steelers’ record without Bell
Including the 2016 conference title game, in which Bell carried the ball just six times before succumbing to injury, Pittsburgh’s record without him is 11-10.
The Steelers had to open three of the past four seasons without Bell in the lineup. His absence is most felt in the postseason, however. Pittsburgh was eliminated in its lone playoff game in 2014, lost in the divisional round in 2015, and dropped the only 2016 playoff game Bell was unable to make an impact in: the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots.
Steelers’ record with Bell
Bell played in the postseason for the first time this past season and immediately set an NFL record for most rushing yards in a player’s first two playoff games. Behind his 29-carry, 167-yard performance, the Steelers won their wild-card matchup with the Dolphins, then rode him to 30 carries and 170 yards in a divisional-round defeat of the Chiefs.
In his four-year career, Pittsburgh has a 32-17 record when he’s on the field. When he’s available, Bell makes a difference.
The promise of a full season
All of this is to say that one full season of Bell could be a special one.
He rushed for 1,268 yards in 12 games last campaign, averaging 105 yards on the ground per game. Those numbers projected out for a 16-game season would have netted him a 1,690-yard year, which would have topped Ezekiel Elliott for the rushing title. Take into account the team’s record without Bell in the postseason, and he has proven to be the ultimate difference-maker.
Of course, the reason the Steelers have had to start so many campaigns without Bell in the lineup is his suspension history. He was banned for the first three games of 2016 for missing multiple drug tests, and was suspended for the first two games of 2015 after being arrested for marijuana possession and driving under the influence.
Though he’s reliable on the field, his drug history has likely given the team pause when considering making a rich long-term investment in the 25-year-old.
While suspensions can be avoided, injuries are part of the game, and they sapped Pittsburgh of its marquee back for the final eight games of 2015 and four of its last six playoff games.
If Bell can’t play in the most important games, what good does it do the franchise to make him one of the highest-paid running backs?
Paying running backs
Bell is only 25 and is either still in or set to enter his prime, but it still goes against conventional football wisdom to heap an exorbitant amount of money on a running back. He may just be worth going against conventional thinking, as he has just one full 16-game season under his belt, but the soft tissue injuries that have dotted his career should be warning signs.
The top deal for an RB belongs to LeSean McCoy, who inked a five-year, $40-million contract in 2015. It is, however, only the 120th-richest contract in the league. That’s as clear a sign as any of how teams view the running back position. An extension for Bell would, without question, exceed McCoy’s.
Roethlisberger’s impending retirement
There’s an argument that the eventual retirement of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should lead the Steelers to pay to keep Bell around long term. What Big Ben’s flirting with retirement should remind the Pittsburgh faithful of is that their championship window is closing rapidly.
The moment Roethlisberger hangs up his cleats, Landry Jones or Joshua Dobbs will have to step in to fill his large shoes. Both quarterbacks require more development in order to lead the team to championship contention.
So, if Big Ben retires in the next year or two, what good does it do the Steelers to have both the highest-paid receiver (Antonio Brown, $16 million per year until 2022) and running back in the game?
In the end, it’s likely the Steelers will find Bell too rare a talent to relinquish. A long-term deal won’t cost the team as much as it would for a premium player at another position. He may have to play the 2017 season under the franchise tag in order to earn it, however.
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