What Should the Steelers do with Running Back Le’Veon Bell?

One of the hottest topics through the first seven weeks of this NFL season has been running back Le’Veon Bell’s contract holdout with the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a Steelers fan, I have been following this situation to find out what the future of the team holds.

There has been plenty of talk about all aspects of Bell’s holdout, but I believe there is only one reasonable course of action for the Steelers to take.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think Bell is a tremendous player. A three time Pro-Bowl- er and two time All-Pro, Bell has had over 1250 yards in three of the past four seasons. Would I like to see the Steelers keep him? Of course. Bell can quite literally do it all at the running back position. His signature hesitation move after taking the handoff in the backfield makes him virtually impossible for defenders to tackle, and he is also one of the premier pass-catching running backs in today’s game. Combine that with his unconventional mix of size (6’1”, 225 lb), speed (4.60 second 40 yard dash) and strength (24 reps of 225 pounds) and it is clear that Bell has a huge amount of value for the Steelers.

Bell is an unprecedented specimen of a running back, but I still find it somewhat difficult to justify spending a lot of money on any running back. While Bell is great when he is on the field, he is not actually on the field enough, and I am not just referring to his current contract holdout.

Since his rookie season in 2013, Bell has missed a total of 18 regular season games, as well as three of the seven playoff games that the Steelers have had over the past five years. Fifteen of those absences were injury related but, perhaps more notably, the other six were due to two separate suspensions by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Additionally, Bell is not a young player anymore. He is almost 27 years- old and has sustained some fairly serious injuries over the course of his career. It is hard to say how much longer he plans to play. Taking that into account, along with Bell’s inability to consistently stay on the field, I believe that there is just too much risk involved in resigning Bell to an enormous contract.

In general, I am of the mindset that paying running backs is a huge waste of money, especially since NFL teams are required to stay below the current salary cap of $177.2 million per team. Bell is great, but second year back James Conner has also been very productive in his six starts this season. Conner has 453 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns thus far, as well as 26 catches for 257 yards.

Compare that to Bell’s performance through the first six games last season (550 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns) and one thing becomes clear: as long as the Steelers have a healthy, strong offensive line, you can plug anyone back into that offense and he will be productive. Even running backs like Stevan Ridley, DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint have been successful behind the Steelers’ offensive line.

On the offensive side, I would much rather have the front office spend its limited money on other key positions, namely offensive linemen and receivers.

In my opinion, the Steelers can continue to draft new running backs every few years without having to pay a ton of money for just one. That way, they can focus on paying their current trio of receivers (Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington) to keep them together so the they can develop as a unit. Unless Bell is willing to agree to a more reasonable con- tract, the Steelers should not try to pursue him when he enters free agency.

Rumors around the league have suggested that the Steelers are potentially interested in trying to trade Bell for a first or second round draft pick. This would honestly be an ideal solution to the whole situation, as the Steelers would gain another valuable early-round draft pick while simultaneously getting away with not paying Bell the huge amount of

money that he wants. However, since most NFL general managers already know that Bell will almost definitely hit free agency this offseason, no teams are willing to give up any of their early picks for a player that will most likely be gone next year. Therefore, the Steelers should just hold on to Bell once he reports, get what they can out of him and try and make a deep playoff run through a running back-by-committe approach with both Bell and Conner. If teams were truly interested in acquiring Bell via trade, they would have most likely done so by now, so there is almost no point in continuing to shop him going forward.

Reports that Bell plans on rejoining the team after Week 7 have surfaced over the past two weeks. I think that, at this point, Bell has made it clear that he cares more about himself than the team as a whole. This is not to say that he does not deserve to get paid, because he obviously has the stats and skills to warrant a huge contract. However, he should have no problem finding that money elsewhere and, with all of the drama that has surrounded him and his relationship with the Steelers, I think that it will be mutually beneficial for the two to part ways.

In other words, once Bell eventually reports, the Steelers should ride the rest of the season out with him and then let him walk.

Contact Ethan Marchetti at [email protected].