Le'Veon Bell Deserves More Than a Franchise Tag, but Don't Fault the Steelers

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutJuly 25, 2017

KANSAS CITY, MP - JANUARY 15:  Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tosses the ball forward after gaining a first down against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise-tagged their best player, who could be a free agent after this upcoming season if he's not tagged again or the two parties can't agree on a long-term contract. 

Wait...the Steelers tagged Ben Roethlisberger? Antonio Brown? Both names are plausible when discussing the best players on Pittsburgh's roster, but if you ask me, that title goes to running back Le'Veon Bell, who was tagged at the running back rate of $12.1 million for the 2017 season.

It's not that the Steelers didn't make an attractive offer; they did. Per Tom Pelissero of NFL.com, Pittsburgh offered Bell a deal that would have paid him $30 million over the first two years and $42 million over three years. That would have surpassed Adrian Peterson's pact from a few years ago as the highest one- and two-year deals ever given to a running back.

At age 25 and coming off a season in which he gained 1,884 yards from scrimmage in just 12 games, Bell is in the prime of his career and arguably the best at his position in the NFL. That's part of his argument.

Part of the Steelers' argument, surely, is that he's played just 47 out of a possible 64 regular-season games due to various injuries and suspensions. Availability is a skill, and when you factor in that the running back market in the NFL has been stagnant for years, their offer looks generous and in line with what one would expect for a top-caliber back.

Bell's standoff point is that he's more than just a running back, and he has a case. It's possible the Steelers undervalue him in this regard because there isn't a comparable skill set in the league.

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David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals, who caught 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns in his second season, has the potential to have the same impact Bell does. He runs complex routes from the backfield, the slot and outside. He forces defenses to react more obviously than your average running back catching passes would.

I don't see the same level of route awareness that Bell has just yet, but Johnson is getting there. And you can bet when it's time to discuss Johnson's second contract, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim will be presented with a similar bill thanks to his star running back's versatility.

"I feel I should be valued as a player, not so much my position," Bell said July 19, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "I make plays in the passing game, blocking, doing everything. I'm arguably the top running back in the NFL and the No. 2 receiver on the Steelers, even though I play running back. Their career receiving total vs. mine, they don't have more yards than me."

Bell's receiving total of 2,005 yards in the last four seasons does indeed rank second on the team behind Antonio Brown's 6,315, and his 227 catches rank second behind Brown's 481.

Bell ranks first in NFL history in yards from scrimmage per game through his first four seasons. Let that sink in. He ranks 24th overall with 6,050 yards from scrimmage, but attaining that number and averaging 128.7 yards per game? Nobody's ever done that.

Then, there's how he's deployed: as a fully functional two-position player. He's a rusher and receiver at top levels. According to Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus, Bell led all running backs by playing in 93 percent of his team's snaps when he was available. He also led all backs in routes run per game at 32.6—more than Julio Jones and Jarvis Landry.

This would all be well and good if Bell were just taking screens and swing passes and running them out of the backfield. But he does a lot more than that. Bell is correct in saying he should also be valued as a receiver, because the Steelers use him that way.

They will line him up in the slot and outside, which is not uncommon for running backs, but what's different is the route progressions offensive coordinator Todd Haley calls require Bell to respond like a slot and outside receiver.

In a recent article for The Players' Tribune in which he listed the five toughest players he's ever gone against in practice or on the field, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier included Bell, writing:

"Any other running back motions out? As a defense, you're thinking: OK, cool. But you're not hurting us. Most linebackers will just jam the running back at the line and they're done. But you're not jamming [Bell]. [He] can hurt you like any top slot receiver.

"I can't stress enough how much this matters. All week long, we watch film for like three or four hours a day. By the time Sunday rolls around, no matter how creative a team tries to get, you pretty much know the sets. You know what they like to run. But if you can flex out a guy like Le'Veon on the fly? It puts you on the back foot."

The following three plays from the 2016 season show just how well-developed Bell's receiving ability is.

Among the most important tasks asked of receivers with mobile quarterbacks is to break off routes and follow the quarterback when the play breaks down, the quarterback breaks the pocket, and he needs to easily see receivers in his view as he runs to the sideline and the field compresses.

Here, in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh's 31-27 Week 16 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Bell peels off from his role as a blocker to help create a touchdown out of nothing. This is just a seven-yard touchdown, but as with many of Bell's plays, there's a lot to it.

Bell is lined up to Roethlisberger's right in a pistol formation, and he starts off blocking left outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (No. 58). But as Roethlisberger fails to find open receivers downfield and scrambles to his right, you can see Bell break off and follow his quarterback to an open space in Baltimore's coverage.

Bell has inside linebacker Zachary Orr (No. 54) closing in on him, but he jukes Orr out of his socks and blasts past a few more Ravens defenders for the score. The ability to follow his quarterback and create an opening is receiver-quality here.

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In the first quarter of Pittsburgh's 35-30 Week 10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, here's Bell aligned wide right, taking an in-cut route against cornerback J.J. Wilcox (No. 27) for a two-yard touchdown.

Again, watch the subtleties of Bell's route running. He leads Wilcox to the outside with his first step and then cuts cleanly inside. When he gets inside position on Wilcox and makes his cut, it's all over.

Note also how Bell extends his body to catch the ball without moving into cornerback Anthony Brown (No. 30), who tried to deflect the ball. This short-area field awareness is a great receiver attribute. Slap a number in the teens or the 80s on his jersey, and you'd have no problem believing he was the Steelers' No. 2 receiver.

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In the fourth quarter of that same game, Bell picked up a 23-yard gain on a Texas (angle) route from the right slot.

Perhaps the most incredible part of this play is the speed with which right guard David DeCastro (No. 66) hits the second level to block linebacker Sean Lee (No. 50), who's supposed to cover Bell in the slot. DeCastro doesn't score a direct hit, but he distracts Lee just enough so that when Bell catches the ball he's able to move upfield, darting easily past linebacker Justin Durant (No. 56).

As is usually the case with Bell, it takes more than one defender to bring him down. This kind of timing and coordination is something you'd expect more of a receiver than a back, so again, Bell is able to give his coaching staff something extra.

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Regarding his running ability, everyone remarks about Bell's patience to and through the hole, to the point where it can get tiresome on certain broadcasts. And yes, Bell does have a unique ability to wait for gaps to open up. But as Shazier wrote, it's about more than that.

"There's an unpredictability to him. We'll call a certain play, but he's going to take a second to scan the field and see how the play develops. Le'Veon waits for what seems like a ridiculously long time to make his cut, because he has the patience to let his linemen open up the holes.

"The difference is that Le'Veon has the vision and the patience, but he also has the physical tools to stop-and-start like nobody else in the NFL. Most running backs don't want to stop their feet and load back up behind the line of scrimmage. But with Le'Veon, he can be almost standing still, then do his jump-cut and slip through a tiny hole at full speed."

Two plays from last year's playoffs show this well.

Here, against the Kansas City Chiefs in an 18-16 divisional-round win, Bell pulls off a nifty 38-yard run in which he initially has no place to go. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson (No. 53) and safety Daniel Sorensen (No. 49) have filled their gaps.

Bell does what he does—he waits. And when DeCastro pulls Wilson outside, Bell has his opening. He blows through that, and when receiver Cobi Hamilton (No. 83) blocks safety Eric Berry (No. 29) out of the play, it's left to Bell to get past cornerback Terrance Mitchell (No. 39). This he does by faking Mitchell to the inside as he overpursues and then accelerating outside.

From there, he drags Wilson another five yards. It's a brilliant performance in which Bell takes advantage of his blocks and takes the play far past what your average running back could do.

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This 26-yard run against the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card Round is an example of how Bell isn't always patient; sometimes, he reads a clear opening and bowls right through it.

Here, he sees right outside linebacker Donald Butler (No. 56) get blocked out quickly by pulling right tackle Marcus Gilbert (No. 77), and he shoots past that gap. Then, after Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett (No. 36) gets free of Antonio Brown's block, it's too late. Bell has already accelerated past Lippett, safety Bacarri Rambo (No. 30) and two other Dolphins defenders.

Check the footage at the end of this play; Bell's balance is exceptional.

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Bell has established himself as not only the best running back in the NFL but also a guy who could put together a 1,000-yard receiving season or two if that's all he did. Does that make his rejection of Pittsburgh's contract a smart move? Never mind what he's "worth"; it's also about what the market will bear.

Bell's lack of consistent availability has been his primary negative as a player. That he amassed 1,884 yards from scrimmage in just 12 games last season also makes one wonder what he could have done with a full 16-game run.

We know what that probably looks like. In 2014, his only 16-game season, he gained 2,215 yards from scrimmage and made the first-team All-Pro team for the only time in his career.

Bell is betting on himself by playing on the one-year tag. He believes he can have another season like 2014, and if he does, he'll either get franchised again at a higher rate or cash in with a bigger long-term contract in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, any player given the franchise tag for a second consecutive season will get 120 percent of his previous year's salary, which would put Bell in the $14.5 million range in 2018.

What would a fair deal to Bell look like? How do you take two positions and combine them in a "player value" sense? If Bell is a legitimate No. 2 receiver, do you take the average salary for such a player and add it to that of a high-grade running back?

If a Michael Bennett is providing equal value at defensive end and pass-rushing tackle, or Chris Harris Jr. is both a great outside and slot cornerback, or Tyrann Mathieu is locking it down at two or three defensive back positions, how do you add that all up?

Let's say the offer the Steelers gave to Bell was fair for his rushing prowess alone. Do you then add on a middling receiver contract to address Bell's versatility? Say, the four-year, $32.5 million deal the Browns gave Kenny Britt this offseason.

That would give Bell a deal that paid him $40.5 million over the first two seasons and $60.25 million over the first three. That's starting quarterback money, and no matter how valuable Bell is, that's not likely to happen. Even if you shave it off a little bit, it puts Bell in a different stratosphere for his position, and teams have a vested interest in reasonable caps for positional value.

Unless Le'Veon Bell or David Johnson are somehow able to market themselves as two-position players, they may be stuck in the league's economic realities.

It's a gamble. If Bell continues to deal with injuries and/or suspensions and falls off at all in a production sense, it's hard to imagine any team offering him what the Steelers did this year. Running backs are rarely paid on potential anymore, no matter how good they are. The position is seen as fungible, whether the player is easily replaceable or not.

Bell would have been wiser to take the bird in the hand, simply because there's a cap on his value. If he's to push that ceiling upward at all, he'll have a season for the ages. Not that he can't, but that's what it will take.

That's a tough way to decide your financial future.

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