Le’Veon Bell is a free man. The William Wallace of running backs fought for his freedom and has finally escaped from Pittsburgh.
Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I am free at last 🙌🏾🙌🏾🙌🏾
— Le’Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) February 20, 2019
Leaving a franchise that was willing to pay you $14.5 million dollars, whilst featuring in an offense that helped you average the most scrimmage yards per game in NFL history (per Field Yates) is a rough time. Whatever you think of Bell’s holdout, it’s evident that a change of scenery will be better for all parties involved. Bell gets the chance to negotiate a new deal on the open market, and the Steelers move on with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Pittsburgh Steelers have decided against using their 2019 transition tag on Bell, who is now free to negotiate as a free agent with other NFL teams when the new league year starts.
Steelers are not tagging Le’Veon Bell, according to GM Kevin Colbert: “Le’Veon is still a great player. We can’t afford to use any other type of tags. Le’Veon will be an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year.”
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) February 20, 2019
So where is Bell going to land? Which franchises are in the market for a running back, and who can afford him? Firstly, what does Le’Veon want? Only Bell and his agent truly know the number at which he is willing to sign, but according to Jason La Canfora, Bell is seeking some hefty compensation:
Bell is Seeking a deal worth 50 million dollars in the first two years of the deal. Plenty of skepticism he will approach that number. Jets, Eagles, Bucs could be among the teams involved
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) February 20, 2019
What we do know, is that Bell wants guaranteed money. After all, that’s why he chose to sit out the 2018 season rather than play under the franchise tag, as well as turn down Pittsburgh contract offer with just over $10million in guarantees. Todd Gurley set the market for elite running back contracts with high guaranteed money in 2018 when he signed an extension with the Rams. Per Spotrac, Gurley has a total of $45million in guaranteed money in his new deal, but even he only got approximately $27million in cash over his first two seasons:
Bell is unlikely to even come close to being paid $50million over two years, but might settle for something like this (credit to @spotrac):
Thanks to the fine folks at Over the Cap we have a fairly accurate picture of the cap space that NFL team will have when the new league year starts. Given the sort of contract, Bell might be looking for, and how replaceable the running back position is (something ironically made evident by Bell sitting out), there are only a handful of teams that would be in the market to sign Bell.
In my opinion, there are five teams that could take part in the Le’Veon Bell sweepstakes:
- New York Jets
- Houston Texans
- Oakland Raiders
- Baltimore Ravens
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Based on projected cap space, all 5 of these franchises could afford to sign Bell, and all (outside of the Texans) need running back help. Tampa Bay under Bruce Arians would probably be the best landing spot for fantasy purposes. The Ravens are my wild card selection and might look to sign a workhorse back to ease the load on Lamar Jackson. A run first offense with a dual threat QB and a chance to stick it to the Steelers twice a season might appeal to Bell – even if money is his primary motivation at this stage of his career.
So what will Le’Veon Bell bring to the team that decides to sign him? We all know Bell is a superb talent. There is no doubting this, and when he has been on the field, he has been productive. In his last three healthy seasons, Bell has finished as a top-three fantasy running back:
He excels as a pass catcher, exhibiting wide receiver-like skills which is part of the reason why he believes he is worth such a large contract. However, Bell’s production only paints half of the picture. He also benefitted from a great offense, elite QB play, and a strong offensive line that complements his patient running style well (Bell averaged 3.1 seconds behind the line of scrimmage in 2016 and 2017 per NFL Next Gen Stats).
Football Outsiders have developed an offensive line metric called ‘Adjusted line yards’ which attempts to attribute rushing yards gained fairly between the o-line and the running back, adjusting for variables such as down, distance, situation, and opponent. If you’re interested in how this is devised, as well as how offensive DVOA is calculated, you can read more here. In all three seasons that Bell has finished as a top 3 fantasy running back, the Steelers offensive line has not finished worse than 7th in the NFL in adjusted line yards or DVOA:
This is not meant to discredit Bell. Data certainly doesn’t paint the whole picture, and spending 5 minutes watching him play lets you know how talented he is. However, this information should make you reconsider any assumptions that he will continue to churn out elite fantasy production, regardless of where he plays, particularly if he ends up running behind a poor line or on a bad offense. The Jets are 3/1 to favourites to land Bell’s signature, but beware; they ranked dead last adjusted line yards and 29th in offensive DVOA in 2018. Don’t expect Mad-Eye Moody (aka Adam Gase) to turn them around overnight either – DFF’s John Di Bari made the case against Gase.
Bell is currently being drafted as the RB11 (26th overall), but I expect him to get a slight bump once he signs with a team. This might present an opportunity pivot to another player in a similar ADP range, and I will certainly be doing that with my remaining Bell shares. If he does manage to return to elite fantasy status and posts 1,800 yards from scrimmage and 8+ touchdowns this season, I will hold my hands up and eat my words.
Do you like Bell’s outlook for this season? Are you buying or selling? Let me know on Twitter @FF_DownUnder.