Le’Veon Bell Is Ready to Return, But Where?

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Throughout the next several weeks, we’ll be assessing the market on some of the best free agents set to come available on March 14. Beyond scheme fit, these decisions will be impacted by available finances, team assessments on current draft prospects and perception of value vs. actual value. We’ll try and parse through those ideas here.

Player: Le’Veon Bell
Age: 26 (turning 27 on Feb. 18)
Position: Running back
2018 salary: $0
2018 statistics: Bell sat out the 2018 season in lieu of signing the franchise tag. His last full season, in 2017, yielded 1,291 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdown, plus 85 catches for 655 yards and two receiving touchdowns.

Why he’s a top-tier free agent: Before rocking the NFL with the seismic decision to sit out the 2018 season, Bell helped usher in the new age of big, pass-catching running backs. His trademark running style can be both situationally grating on a defense, giving up an extra yard or two at a time, and instantly devastating once he hits the home run. Bell could be a check down godsend to a younger quarterback thanks to his sure hands and experience lining up throughout an offense, and adds an instant cache to a backfield that now must become a central focus of an opposing defense’s game plan.

FREE AGENT REPORT: Jadeveon Clowney Set to Benefit From Defense-Friendly Market

Risks involved: Where to begin? Ignoring the toll Bell’s 2018 stand took on his perception among coaches and general managers who may worry about his commitment to the team, there are some very legitimate football questions to be answered in the coming days and weeks. James Conner’s fantastic season in Pittsburgh last year—he rushed for more yards per carry than Bell in 2017, and had a better yards-per-catch average as well—was eye-opening. Bell’s gaudy statistics and heavy workload effectively masked the fact that Steelers GM Kevin Colbert had assembled the best offensive line in football. How much of Bell’s success is attributed to the players he’s running behind? Would a team with a middling offensive line spend top dollar uncertain as to whether Bell could make them better? Bell has also had sports hernia surgery in 2017, tore his MCL in 2015 and was suspended twice, for marijuana possession and DUI and running afoul of the league’s policy on substances of abuse.

BENOIT: Ranking the NFL’s Neediest Teams Ahead of Free Agency and the NFL Draft

Market prospects: I can see two futures for Bell here: The first is that a deep-pocketed franchise with a quarterback still on his rookie contract pays the kind of top-dollar appearance fee Bell is looking for (the Jets, Texans and Bills all fit the criteria, while the Colts also have a surplus of cap space but no QB on a rookie deal). The second? He identifies an advantageous situation where he won’t be the nerve center of the offense but can still enjoy a contract on the high end with multi-year assurances (think David Johnson’s Cardinals deal, which I suggest fully recognizing that the guarantees there were similar to the ones Bell initially turned down in Pittsburgh). Mike Garafolo of NFL Network floated the Ravens as a possibility, which may be attractive to Bell both for the offense and the fact that he gets to play against his former team twice a year. Remember, there is also the potential for Pittsburgh to transition-tag Bell, which throws a lot of the contract speculations we’ve made so far out the window.

FRANCHISE TAG PRIMER: Tag Candidates for All 32 NFL Teams

Potential destinations: Steelers (transition tag), Colts, Jets, Texans, Ravens, Buccaneers

Contract comps:

Todd Gurley, L.A. Rams: Four years, $57.5 million / $14.375 million APY / $45 million in total guarantees

David Johnson, Arizona: Three years, $39 million / $13 million APY / $31,882,500 in total guarantees

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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