The Pittsburgh Steelers are entering a 2018 season in which they have Super Bowl aspirations. This has been the case for pretty much the past half-decade or so.
But the window certainly is closing. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting any younger. The game’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, is in the midst of his prime. Meanwhile, it looks like All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell will be with the team for just one more season.
Bell himself is the focal point of this team heading into training camp. By now it’s well known that the star running back and Pittsburgh’s front office failed to come to terms on a long-term extension prior to Monday’s deadline. This means that Bell will be playing under the franchise tag tender for a second consecutive season.
Following the passing of said deadline, Bell’s agent had some haunting comments regarding the running back’s future in Pittsburgh.
“His intention was to retire as a Steeler,” Adisa Bakari said. “But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will be Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.”
Bakari went on to note that the Steelers seemingly want to pay the position, not the player. And that’s the real issue here for both sides. Pittsburgh is devaluing what Bell brings to the table as a do-it-all back.
By offering him a five-year, $70 million extension, general manager Kevin Colbert and Co. are valuing Bell as the 23rd highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. Not a single objective person can conclude that there’s nearly two dozen starting quarterback more valuable to their team than this running back is to the Steelers.
It’s not just a difference from a micro level. This isn’t Pittsburgh’s way of suggesting Bell represents less value than he’d like to let on. Rather, it’s all about the organization failing to believe that running backs in general should be paid at the clip of other positions.
That would be fine if we were talking about a one-dimensional back. We’re not. Over the course of the past two seasons, Bell is averaging 80 receptions and boasts an absurd 80 percent catch rate. That’s in addition to him putting up an average of nearly 1,300 rushing yards during that span while leading the league in attempts with 321 last season.
To put Bell’s importance into perspective, he touched the ball on 38.6 percent of Pittsburgh’s plays last season. For comparison’s sake, reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley touched the ball just 34 percent of the time for the Los Angeles Rams. The best running back in modern history, Adrian Peterson, never accounted for more than 38.1 percent of his team’s touches in a given season.
For some reason, Pittsburgh has failed to get with the changing times. It’s still stuck years in the past, when running backs themselves were both seen as one-dimensional and not worthy of large long-term contracts. With the advent of multi-use backs in recent years, that’s changed a great deal.
Look at Gurley in Los Angeles, David Johnson with the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys back Ezekiel Elliott as recent examples. What these backs bring to the table should be valued at a high clip.
After all, the New York Giants just legitimately made Saquon Barkley the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft. It’s just the third time in the past quarter century that a running back has gone within the first two picks.
So, as we noted before, this is not simply about where Pittsburgh values Bell. It’s more ideological than that. The team doesn’t value running backs at the clip we’ve come to expect in the modern era — do-it-all running backs that is.
If this is the case, it’s time for Pittsburgh to trade Bell prior to Week 1. Move on from this never-ending nightmare and cut its losses.
Bell isn’t going to suddenly take a below-market deal to return to Pittsburgh next March. On the other hand, franchising the running back for a third consecutive year would cost these Steelers an absurd $20.94 million for the 2019 season. That’s not happening.
Certainly, there would be push back here from fans in Pittsburgh. Considered one of the top contenders to unseat New England in the AFC, trading Bell would be seen as a terrible way to throw in the towel.
In no way does that mean it’s not doable. If Pittsburgh truly believes running backs are a product of its system, then it’s also working under the assumption that second-year back James Conner could excel as a replacement for Bell.
As noted above, other teams value running backs of Bell’s ilk more than the Steelers. If so, the market for his services would be through the roof. What is to stop a team like Green Bay — boasting two first-round picks in next year’s draft — from offering up one of them for Bell? Imagine him teaming up with Aaron Rodgers. Whew.
From a Steelers perspective, the idea would be to trade in one season of an unhappy and uninspired Bell in order to avoid losing him for nothing this coming March.
The situation in Pittsburgh is not indicative of long-term success. Bell is unhappy. He’s making noise through his agent. It’s become a distraction. And barring some sort of an organization-wide philosophical tidal change, nothing is going to change here.
It’s time for the Steelers to move on from Bell and cut their losses. It’s that simple.