Sat. Dec 15th, 2018

Should Le’Veon Bell even come back this season?

Two defensive linemen in the late 1990s, Sean Gilbert and Dan Williams, followed through with full-season protests of the franchise tag, and no franchise-tagged player has missed an entire season in the 20 years since then.

Le’Veon Bell should do just that. 

Even if Bell's crusade might not have the happy ending he seeks, it's time for damage control. Playing running back in this era and having done it for five years places Bell’s earning potential in a more precarious position than that of Gilbert or Williams. The Steelers standout mismanaged this from the start, but what exactly does he have to gain by reporting now? (Well, money. But in foregoing more than $7 million already, the two-time All-Pro back has shown he's a hardliner on this front.) 

The Steelers treated James Conner as an afterthought once Bell reported to the team prior to Week 1 of last season. Bell displaced the rookie third-round pick and dominated touches (an NFL-high 406 to Conner's 32) for a team that’s given throwback workloads to its starting backs in recent years.

Conner isn’t going anywhere this time. He’s in contention for a first-team All-Pro spot and is riding four straight 100-yard rushing games. That matches Bell’s 2017 output in total. Conner is also on pace to surpass one of this generation’s best pass-catching backs in receiving yards. He’s at 379 through eight games; Bell finished last season with 655.

There isn’t enough to gain for Bell to risk injury by playing for the Steelers again.

He’s already accrued the required four seasons for unrestricted free agency, creating an interesting decision in the coming days. Bell's stance prioritized long-term earnings over a guaranteed short-term windfall. Returning by Nov. 13 — the last date he can report to play this season — and collecting $6M-plus would be understandable. But nothing Bell’s said or done would make that a worthwhile conclusion to his unique 2018.

Bell’s best course of action would’ve probably been to have accepted the Steelers’ extension offer in July.

While the public may never know the precise terms of that deal, the reported five-year Pittsburgh proposal had $47M going to Bell through the 2020 season. It’s possible the low-guarantee contract, per some outlets, included shaky enough terms on the back end to make Bell and his agent skittish. Still, it’s hard to imagine him seeing a better deal in free agency.

If he reports after the Steelers’ Week 10 game, several factors point to it interfering with the ultimate goal: being in the best possible position to command a strong free-agency offer.

Conner’s averaging 135.6 yards from scrimmage per game — just 1 yard behind Todd Gurley. While Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus aren’t quite as bullish on Conner compared to Bell’s most recent season, he’s at worst going to be in a timeshare with Bell in the event the former starter does report. Conner will have the edge because he’s had months’ worth of practice and game work (and hasn't alienated nearly everyone in the organization). 

Bell adjusted slowly to open last season, totaling 47, 91 and 98 yards, respectively, from scrimmage in his first three games. That won’t cut it when a teammate is dominating. Conner’s emergence changed the equation for Bell, who can no longer definitively say he’s the best back on his team — at least, not in the form he’d be in if he suited up in Week 11.

This surprise Conner breakout also impacts Bell’s free agency.

Selected with a 2017 compensatory pick, Conner stringing together these kinds of performances may make prospective Bell buyers wonder if they’d be signing a difference-making talent or a player who blossomed in a system conducive to rushing success. (DeAngelo Williams' 2015 as a part-time starter strengthens the latter theory.)

Unless Bell reports to the Steelers and significantly outplays Conner, he can’t really improve his stock. Bell averaged just 4.0 yards per carry last season — down from his previous three marks of 4.7, 4.9 and 4.9. Conner’s at 4.7. Bell's best play is to let past film talk rather than risk adding sluggish outings to his tape.

The soon-to-be 27-year-old Bell’s immense volume history (1,541 career touches — 120 more than any active back through an age-25 season) also doesn’t scream late-20s reliability. Gurley signed his extension with 914 career touches; David Johnson accumulated just 405 prior to his re-up. LeSean McCoy, however, signed a five-year, $40M Bills deal after 1,761 touches in six Eagles seasons. Bell obviously wants a lot more than $8 million per year, but Shady's late-20s production works in his favor.

If Bell suits up, Conner likely stays the starter and makes his predecessor the change-of-pace guy. Not a good look for a big-money-seeking free agent. Even if Bell's overqualified for the role, being used as a complementary piece will be an image 2019 bidders will have. Bell's months-long, me-first routine won't help endear him to other front offices either.

Operating with a specific intent of avoiding punishment to be in optimal condition for another team — and doing so behind an offensive line that holds him in lower regard — would be a real mess, albeit an incredibly compelling plot.

Then there's the disaster outcome: an injury. Considering Bell's prior knee and groin trouble, another injury could torpedo his value. This is obviously the primary reason Bell should stay away. By doing so, he would increase the price of a prospective 2019 transition tag — making it equal to his 2018 franchise tag ($14.5M). The Steelers aren’t franchise-tagging him again at quarterback-tag money

Bell landing Gurley-level dollars (four years, $57.5M, $45M guaranteed) was hard to foresee before the hiatus, and finding a team that would pay him in the David Johnson neighborhood ($13M per year) isn’t easy. But he’ll still be coveted in March. Injuries caused Johnson and Allen Robinson ($14M AAV) to miss 15 games apiece, but they still received top-market money. A healthy Bell missing 16 is seemingly better than those situations.

Playing on a second-round contract and the 2017 tag placed Bell in a bad spot — well, in an NFL sense, not commoner-wise. Saquon Barkley’s fully guaranteed, four-year, $31.2M contract nearly doubles what Bell’s received in five years (barely $16M). While he could have corrected this by signing a Steelers extension this year, the team possessed the leverage. 

Bell will have a better chance of landing the contract he wants by staying the course now. So much could go wrong if he plays for the Steelers again. 

A rough PR year aside, Bell can’t risk his stock further dropping. That would waste this dedicated (albeit polarizing) approach.

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