Realistic Landing Spots for Le'Veon Bell in 2019 NFL Free Agency
ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler reported Wednesday that the Steelers will not place any tags (franchise or transition) on Bell.
"Le'Veon is still a great player," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said, via Fowler. "We can't afford to use any other type of tags. Le'Veon will be an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year."
To be a realistic player in the looming Bell sweepstakes, a team likely must be desperate for a difference-making weapon on offense and cap-rich enough to afford him. Players with resumes like Bell's don't become available often, so he could be the subject of a bidding war on the free-agent market.
Bell plays a non-premium position, so he won't command $20-plus million per year. But teams also have to consider that when budgeting for the offseason. A team has to be flush with cap space to spend $30 million annually on a quarterback, but the same rule applies to justify spending, say, $15-20 million on a running back.
Which teams might pursue Bell when he hits the open market? The following make sense as potential landing spots.
The Indianapolis Colts are projected to enter the new league year with an NFL-high $107.6 million in salary-cap space, which gives them room to afford Bell while rounding out their roster elsewhere.
The Colts have young backfield talent in middle-round picks Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, but none look as though they're primed to become game-changers. Indianapolis has also lacked backfield experience since Frank Gore's departure.
The Colts have few key players slated to hit free agency. The much-improved offensive line is firmly in place, franchise quarterback Andrew Luck has his career back on track, and they already have a strong No. 1 wide receiver in T.Y. Hilton.
Indy could use an elite pass-rusher to help put an emerging defense over the top, but signing Bell wouldn't prevent the Colts from pursuing someone like Trey Flowers or Za'Darius Smith on the open market.
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the Colts are a playoff-caliber team in win-now mode. That should be compelling to a no-longer-young running back who lost some tire tread during his five-year stint in Pittsburgh.
New York Jets
Only the Colts are projected to possess more salary-cap space than the New York Jets, who also could use an offensive playmaker to support a young franchise quarterback and could pay Bell without having to make sacrifices elsewhere.
Gang Green's running game ranked 29th in yards per carry and 26th in yards per game in 2018. Meanwhile, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News wrote last week that veteran back Isaiah Crowell "will be a goner after the Jets sign a free-agent running back next month."
In other words, Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan appears poised to hit the market in search of a veteran to pair with replacement-level third-year back Elijah McGuire. And Bell is a far more attractive target than Jay Ajayi, who's recovering from a torn ACL, or a 29-year-old Mark Ingram.
A bidding-war tie between the Colts and Jets might go to the former since the latter isn't seen as a major contender yet. The Jets are coming off a four-win season, the jury remains out on second-year quarterback Sam Darnold, and New York is stuck in a division with the mighty New England Patriots.
The Baltimore Ravens are another AFC team with money to spend, a hole at running back and a desire to surround a second-year franchise quarterback with more talent and experience.
Would Bell be willing to join one of his former squad's chief rivals?
Playing in Baltimore would give him more opportunities to exact revenge against the organization that wasn't willing to give him the money he thought he deserved. Bell may feel as though the Steelers cost him a season in his prime, which could further motivate him to join the Ravens.
The Ravens might already be an attractive landing spot because they're a 2018 playoff team with a strong defense and an exciting young quarterback in Lamar Jackson. They're also projected to have more than $50 million to spend, although they do have some in-house business to take care of with Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Za'Darius Smith and John Brown all slated to hit free agency.
Regardless, Baltimore could use the backfield help. Undrafted rookie back Gus Edwards had a strong 2018 campaign, but there's no telling if that's sustainable, and veteran Alex Collins fell back to earth after a breakout season in 2017. Plus, both Edwards and Collins hardly factored in as pass-catchers.
Most critically, Bell could take a lot of pressure off Jackson, which has to be the focus right now in Baltimore.
The Jets aren't the only cap-rich AFC team in need of a jolt after a lousy season on the ground.
The Oakland Raiders gave most of their rushing work to veterans Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch in 2018, but those two are a combined 62 years old and both of their contracts expire in March. Their bottom-10 rushing offense needs a fresh presence in the backfield.
The Raiders have suffered several PR blows in the early stages of Jon Gruden's second tenure, so they need somebody who can rally a spurned fanbase in Oakland as well as a fanbase standing by in Las Vegas. Bell and/or fellow soon-to-be former Steelers offensive weapon Antonio Brown could potentially do the trick, and Oakland has the money to make the former happen.
Only six teams are projected to have more cap space than the Raiders, who might believe they have an open window of contention so long as franchise quarterback Derek Carr is on board.
Selling Bell on that may be difficult since Gruden's infamous 2018 fire sale led to a four-win season, but the fit is obvious. As such, the unpredictable Raiders may decide to outbid every other team for his services.
As noted last week, the Buffalo Bills occasionally like to do a cannonball into the NFL swimming pool. They made notable splashes with Drew Bledsoe in 2002, Terrell Owens in 2009 and Mario Williams in 2012.
They're due for another big jump, they could use the help on offense and they have plenty of money. Per Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News, the Bills are currently projected to have more cap space than all but two teams this offseason and more cap space than every other team next offseason.
Veteran back LeSean McCoy remains on the roster, but the Bills can save $6.4 million in cap space by parting ways with the declining 30-year-old, which makes it even easier to justify a pursuit of Bell.
The Bills haven't won a playoff game this century and are largely barren at every offensive skill position except quarterback. Rookie signal-caller Josh Allen led the team in rushing last season, and there's no one waiting in the wings behind McCoy on the running back depth chart.
Bringing in Bell would fire up a hungry fanbase and bolster support for Allen, but the Bills may face the same challenges as the Jets in convincing Bell to sign with them. Both look as though they'll have trouble making a run at the AFC East title in 2019 regardless of whether Bell joins the fray.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Only one offense averaged fewer yards per carry than the 2018 Bucs, who need to get serious about adding backfield talent and experience alongside quarterback Jamies Winston. Could new offensive-minded head coach Bruce Arians lobby for Bell? The running back lives in Florida and the Bucs have plenty of receiving talent, but they aren't considered a contender and they have only $15 million in cap space.
This makes a ton of sense on paper, especially with Ajayi on track to hit free agency. Bell wouldn't even have to leave Pennsylvania! But the Eagles don't have the money to sign Bell, especially since they're dealing with a lot of other needs this offseason.
Green Bay Packers
Perhaps the Packers are more willing than ever to pay up for free agents, but general manager Brian Gutekunst might be scared off by 2018 failures Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson. They could bring in Bell if they're serious about making major changes on offense, and they do have the cap space, but this would be uncharacteristic for them. Besides, Green Bay already has Aaron Jones on its roster.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners have the cap space and the desire to bring in support for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, so don't rule it out. But San Francisco also spent relatively big bucks last year on free-agent running back Jerick McKinnon. The Niners would likely be better off spending elsewhere and seeing what McKinnon and Matt Breida can bring to the table in 2019.
This probably won't happen with Lamar Miller still on the roster, but cutting the occasionally inconsistent Miller would save the Texans $6.2 million. Could a desperate team with oodles of cap space consider a bold backfield upgrade?
All cap-space figures via Spotrac.