The “We Want Le’Veon Bell” chorus is starting to raise its voice across the NFL now that the Steelers running back is destined to sit out the remainder of this season with hopes of signing a multi-year free-agent deal in the spring.
The Jets, because of their $95 million in cap money, have been prominently mentioned as a landing spot for the 26-year-old three-time Pro Bowl performer. But there is no need to rush to judgment on whether to sign Bell. There are plenty of reasons for the Jets to steer clear if the price is too high.
Good on Bell for sticking to his principles. He turned down a five-year, $70 million offer from the Steelers, presumably because the guarantee was only $17 million. That pales in comparison to the contract Todd Gurley signed with the Rams last July that has $45 million guaranteed in a four-year extension worth $60 million. Football free agency is all about guaranteed money these days, which is why the Steelers were testing Bell’s conviction with their lowball offer.
It must have been worth the $14.5 million he forfeited for not playing in 2018 to stand his ground and stay healthy before going on the open market. Bell, in the prime of his career, will certainly want to be the highest-paid running back, with a contract for more money and higher guarantee than what Gurley got from the Rams. That’s not a check the Jets need to write.
Certainly, they can afford it. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether to commit about $18 million per year when you’re not sure what kind of return you’re going to get. Bell, a dual threat as a runner and receiver, has averaged 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game, the best since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. But that was playing with four-time Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown; quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner; and Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro.
The Jets don’t have that type of supporting cast. They need upgrades at wide receiver, at center and running back. They a need pass rusher and upgrades on the defensive line and linebacker. You need experienced, smart and proven players at those positions. When the Jets added running back Curtis Martin in 1998, they already had Vinny Testaverde at quarterback; Wayne Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson as receivers; Kevin Mawae at center and Jumbo Elliott at left tackle. Martin wound up in the Hall of Fame.
In short, the 2018 Jets have a lot of money, but they also have a lot of holes to fill. Spending $75 million to $80 million on a running back doesn’t need to be the priority, even for someone as good as Bell.
Truth is, this is uncharted territory. The top running backs normally sign extensions with their current teams. Gurley re-upped with the Rams; Devonta Freeman agreed to a five-year extension last year to stay with the Falcons. His contract pays $41.25 million with $17 million fully guaranteed. David Johnson signed an extension with the Cardinals this September worth $45 million, with $30 million guaranteed.
Neither has lived up to their deals. Freeman played in just two games this year before going on injured reserve with a groin injury. Johnson, who had 2,118 yards from scrimmage and scored 20 touchdowns two years ago, has just 784 total yards this season.
Also, free agency hasn’t always worked out when running backs hit the open market. Teams can wind up paying for past production. DeMarco Murray rushed for a league-leading 1,845 yards with the Cowboys in 2014 and also caught 57 passes for 416 receiving yards. He got a five-year deal worth $42 million ($21 million guaranteed) with the Eagles, running for just 702 yards in 2015 before moving on to Tennessee.
There are plenty of questions surrounding Bell: his loyalty to his team; his two-game suspension in 2015 for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy; and whether he’ll be as productive as he was in Pittsburgh.
The Jets need to help themselves before Bell can help them.