By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
Going into the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers had a clear need at running back, with Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and Isaac Redman being the primary backs on the team. During the 2012 season, the Steelers ranked 26th in rushing, averaging a pathetic 96.1 yards per game. Many analysts expected the team would look to address the position early in the draft, with backs like Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy, Andre Ellington, and Montee Ball being the expected targets. After adding Jarvis Jones with the 17th pick of the 1st round, the Steelers went on the clock in the 2nd round with the 48th pick with Bernard as the only running back already selected (by the Bengals with the 37th pick). Lacy was not expected to fall this far and almost everyone expected to hear his name called by the Steelers.
“With the 48th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select…”
“Le’Veon Bell, Running Back, Michigan State.”
Instantly, critics everywhere began writing off the Steelers for their 2nd round selection. Many draft pundits believe the Steelers reached about 1 or 2 rounds too early to select the huge running back from Michigan State. Often criticized for his weight, poor vision, and inability to perform as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, the pick made no sense to most people. During his rookie season in 2013, he did little to prove the naysayers wrong, missing time due to injury and struggling to build a chemistry or any kind of respect from Ben Roethlisberger. In September of that season, Roethlisberger was quoted saying:
“Honestly, I have no idea with him. You can’t get a read on him. One day, he’s practicing, one day, he’s not; one day, he’s going hard, the next day, he’s not. If he was a guy like Health Miller that you knew was busting his butt every day to get back there… Le’Veon is a rookie, I don’t know him quite well enough yet. But if he can come back and help us, we’ll take him.”
Not exactly high praise from your quarterback.
During the entire season, fans squirmed while watching Lacy have a monster rookie season with the Green Bay Packers. “He could be ours.” “The Steelers should fire everyone in the front office.” “Worst. Draft. Ever.” Mike Tomlin blocked out the noise and showed confidence that Bell would be the Steelers guy for the foreseeable future.
Fast forward 3 seasons and 20 less pounds, Le’Veon Bell is arguably the leagues best running back due to his versatility as a runner and receiver. In the 2014 season, Bell rushed for 1,361 yards, had 854 receiving yards, 11 total touchdowns, and 0 fumbles. In 2015, Bell picked up right where he left off, amassing 556 yards in 6 games with a whopping 4.9 yards per carry. Against the Bengals, though, Bell went down with a major knee injury (torn MCL), sidelining him for the remainder of the season. This came after he previously injured his knee against the Bengals in the regular season finale against the Bengals in 2014.
Two knee injuries in two seasons is far from great.
Add in his rookie season injuries, and Bell has spent time on the sideline in each of his first three seasons.
Lets not forget the 2-game suspension for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. Apparently Bell didn’t realize that driving while high counts as “driving under the influence”.
With all of that put aside, Bell is indisputably one of the best backs in the league. What he brings to the Steelers offense is second to none. His patience, vision, athleticism, power, strength, and deceptive speed is amongst the best in the league. He is truly the full package.
2016 marks Bell’s contract season with the Steelers, giving the team a difficult decision coming up. While Bell is an elite running back, how much are the Steelers going to be willing to pay him for his services?
In March, Bell took to his Twitter to express some thoughts:
This could potentially indicate some conflicts between the Steelers value of Bell compared to what he believes his market value will be. There are plenty of running backs that are making a large chunk of money that are no where near the caliber of player of Bell:
By looking at the list of players above, there are 9 running backs that will be making at least $6 million per season next year, including rookie Ezekiel Elliott. By looking at this list, it is reasonable for Bell to believe that he is worth every penny that he will likely earn at the conclusion of this season.
The biggest question surrounding the situation is whether or not the Steelers will be willing to pay their prized back the money he feels he deserves, especially considering his injury history. The other day, I ran a poll to see what many of you felt the Steelers should do, and the results should surprise no one:
A large part of whether or not the Steelers will choose to resign Bell will come down to whether or not he can stay out of trouble and remain healthy. If he is able to do both in 2016, he will be in for a very lucrative payday, potentially around the likes of LeSean McCoy’s $8 million a year deal and likely be a 4-5 year contract, especially with Bell being only 24 years old. Whether or not that contract will come from the Steelers has yet to be determined.
The Steelers will likely be looking to lock up a huge deal for All-Pro right guard David DeCastro, which can be potentially done by the end of this offseason. Last season, DeCastro exploded onto the scene as one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league and deserves every penny he receives from his future contract extension. The difference between DeCastro and Bell is health. Aside from a torn MCL during his rookie season, DeCastro has been a staple of stability along the offensive line and the Steelers would be smart to lock him up for a long-term contract. Another name that might prevent the Steelers from getting a long-term deal done with Bell is Antonio Brown, who has 2 years left on his current deal and is arguably much more valuable to the teams air assault. As the best receiver in the NFL, Brown has been a severely underpaid receiver. Brown’s next contract will likely put him as one of the top 3 paid receivers in the league. With huge contracts like Lawrence Timmons coming to and end, the Steelers could potentially find a deal that works for Bell if he is able to stay healthy and they would be smart to do so because of all that Bell brings to the team.
What if Bell can’t stay healthy? That’s a question that most Steelers fans likely won’t want to think about but if history is any indication, it is a very likely circumstance. If Bell receives yet another injury for the 4th consecutive season, that could substantially drive down his overall market value. If this happens, this could potentially lead the Steelers to give him a contract that doesn’t break the bank and is very team friendly. A realistic number for this circumstance would be between $4-$6 million a season with a much shorter duration of around 3 seasons. The scary thought is that there are teams that would still be willing to throw around $7-$8 million per season for Bell due to his ability when healthy, so if there is truly a problem between the Steelers brass and Bell, Bell could still leave for the more lucrative contract.
This situation could play out very similarly to Maurkice Pouncey’s 5-year, $44 million extension in 2014. Arguably one of the top 3 centers in the league, the Steelers broke the bank to regain Pouncey’s services, making him the highest paid center in the league at the time (he is now the 4th highest paid center). The Steelers extended him during the offseason following a season where he tore his ACL 9 plays into the first game of the season. Although he returned to form in the 2014 season by making the Pro Bowl and being selected as a 1st All-Pro Selection, he missed the entire 2015 season due to a broken fibula and complications associated to the surgery. Although Pouncey is extremely talented (in his 4 healthy seasons, he has 4 Pro Bowls and 4 All-Pro selections), the Steelers have received very little compensation from the huge contract given to him 2 years ago and there is little indication that he will be ready by the beginning of this season, as the Steelers seem to be keeping any and all information away from the media. The same can be said for Bell, as other than his Instagram account, there have been little reports of his recovery process. Pouncey’s injury history after signing a blockbuster deal could be another reason for the Steelers hesitations for wanting to resign Bell to an equally huge deal.
The main reason the team might not feel comfortable signing Bell to a blockbuster contract is due to the overall value of running backs in today’s NFL. Teams like the New England Patriots have been able to succeed using a running-back-by-committee approach instead of investing in one top-tier back while investing their money elsewhere. Running backs like Bell are all the rage in today’s NFL due to their versatility but the Steelers might feel that they can find another player like Bell in the draft for a much cheaper price tag.
Long story short, the Bell contract situation has the potential to be one of the hardest decisions in recent memory for the Steelers. It is a highly complex situation due to Bell’s extensive injury history but their is no denying what he brings to the team when he is healthy. The Steelers have said that Bell is their guy for the future, but unfortunately money speaks. The Steelers need to bring Bell back at all costs, but there will likely be a limit on what the Steelers will be willing to spend. The 2016 season will be the most telling factor of how everything plays out and each side will likely try their hardest to get a deal done to keep Bell in Pittsburgh since it’s the team that gave him a chance in the first place when many others criticized the team. There is no questioning Bell’s talent and ability but his ability to stay on the field will be the driving factor in a future contract extension.
The Steelers need to bring back Bell.
But when is too much money too much and at what costs?
Only time will tell.