Locking Up Joique Bell Should Be a Priority for Detroit Lions

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Locking Up Joique Bell Should Be a Priority for Detroit Lions
Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

Rarely is the backup at any position an offseason priority in the NFL, but Joique Bell of the Detroit Lions isn't your average No. 2 running back.

Talented and productive, with a willingness to work out a deal for the team he grew up idolizing and a rare familiarity with Detroit's new head coach and offensive coordinator, Bell should be at or near the top of the Lions' offseason checklist.

The 27-year-old is scheduled to become a restricted free agent this spring, giving the Lions multiple options to retain one of the game's most valuable and effective backups. The team can offer a tender—at a first-, second-or original-round compensation—or work out a long-term deal. 

Bell told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that he wants to get a multi-year deal done sooner rather than later. 

“I would like to just bypass all this and just sign a long-term deal, just knock it out," Bell said. "I don’t want to go anywhere. So let’s make this (happen). Honestly, let’s just make this happen.”

The Lions should be on board with completing a deal that keeps Bell in Detroit past 2014, and the numbers show why. 

In 2013, a total of 25 running backs cracked 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Bell was one. So was Reggie Bush, Detroit's $16 million investment last offseason and the offense's starting running back. 

However, Bell was one of just five backs to hit the 1,000-yard mark while starting less than eight games. And among those, only Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals (zero starts) and Fred Jackson of the Buffalo Bills (six) bested his 1,197 yards from scrimmage. 

Overall, Bell's 2,096 yards from scrimmage over the last two seasons ranks 21st among running backs and first among those with 10 or fewer starts. His two-year total is better than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jackson, Pierre Thomas, Danny Woodhead, Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew, among others. 

While 1,064 of his yards over the last two seasons have come on the ground, Bell has quickly developed into one of the NFL's best receiving backs. 

Since 2012, he's caught 105 passes, ranking seventh among running backs, for 1,032 yards. He's one of only three backs with over 1,000 yards receiving over the last two seasons, joining Sproles and Woodhead. And his 9.8 yards per catch is fourth among backs with at least 30 catches, trailing only DeAngelo Williams (13.3), Shane Vereen (10.5) and Marcel Reece (9.9). 

Best of the Backups? Joique Bell's 2012-2013 Totals
Total NFL Rank*
Rushing Yards 1,064 1st
Rushing TDs 11 1st
Receptions 105 2nd
Receiving Yards 1,032 2nd
Yards from Scrimmage 2,096 1st

*Among RBs with 8 or fewer starts

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bell's average of 1.9 yards per route run was fourth best among running backs, highlighting that his receiving numbers weren't just about pure volume in 2013. 

He hasn't been too shabby of a runner, though, either. 

Over 243 carries since 2012, Bell has averaged 4.3 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns. His 11 scores are tied with LeSean McCoy for 18th-most but are still more than the likes of Bush, Steven Jackson, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews and Jones-Drew. 

His unique ability to stay on his feet has made him a valuable rushing commodity. 

According to PFF, 640 of Bell's 1,064 rushing yards over the last two seasons have come after contact, at an average of 2.6 yards per carry. During that time period, he forced 74 missed tackles, including 44 in the running game. 

In 2013, Bell finished fifth overall in PFF's "Elusive Rating," which helps track how talented a runner is without the aid of blocking. The formula takes into account both yards after contact and missed tackles forced. He trailed only Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Ivory and DeMarco Murray

And once again, Bell and his 1,064 rushing yards led all running backs with less than eight starts over the last two seasons. Trailing him were Ben Tate, Ivory, Mark Ingram and Bernard Pierce. 

Starting Material? Joique Bell's Overall Ranks, 2012-2013
Total NFL Rank
Rushing Yards 1,064 30th
Yards per Carry 4.3 27th
Rushing TDs 11 18th (tied)
Receptions 105 7th
Receiving Yards 1,032 3rd
Yards per Reception 9.8 4th
Yards from Scrimmage 2,096 21st

Source: Pro Football Reference

The variety of numbers produced above paint the picture of a player who probably deserves a crack at a starting job. Scott Linehan, Bell's offensive coordinator the last three seasons, said as much to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com

"I have no question he could start," Linehan said before being let go. "He's a guy that can handle a pretty heavy load. The thing about him is he has versatility to do that."

The one obstacle to that in Detroit is Bush, who signed a four-year deal with $4 million guaranteed last spring. He ran for 1,006 yards and caught 54 passes for 506 yards over a productive and occasionally electrifying season. But he also led all running backs in fumbles lost (four) and drops (nine), and Bell has almost a 1,000 fewer carries than the 28-year-old back during his NFL career. 

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Yet even if there isn't a starting job available for Bell next season, there's still a desire for the Michigan native and Wayne State grad to stay home and continue playing for the Lions. 

"Like I said: I love this franchise, I grew up watching it, I worked here, I always dreamed of playing here," Bell said, via Birkett. "And now I’m playing here, so let’s make the best of it."

Helping Bell's case to stay in Detroit is the fact that he's already worked under new head coach Jim Caldwell and first-year offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. His rookie season in 2010 took him to Indianapolis, where Bell played in five games under Caldwell. He then made a brief appearance in New Orleans during the 2011 season, when Lombardi was coaching the Saints quarterbacks. 

The Lions also kept their running backs coach from Jim Schwartz's staff, Curtis Modkins

Now, it's time to ensure Bell is playing in Detroit in 2014 and beyond. 

The Lions have been afforded the somewhat rare opportunity to lock up a talented, productive player who is content in his role and absolutely enamored with the franchise. It will likely take either a second-round tender or a sizable pay bump on the $630,000 he made in 2013. 

Bell may be a backup, but he's more than proven his value to the Lions. Any money spent on locking him up now will be well worth it. 

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