Heading into the 2019 NFL season, there are only three running backs under contract who are at least 30 years old. The Buffalo Bills employ two of them. Chris Ivory, who turns 31 on March 22, is the oldest running back under contract for next season, and LeSean McCoy, who turns 31 in July, is the second-oldest. Given that both rushers combined to rush 276 times for only 899 yards and four touchdowns, it’s not a stretch to say that the Bills need an influx of youth at the position.
With a free-agent market loaded with potential impact players, the Bills could absolutely decide to address the position on the open market. The danger, of course, comes with having to pay top-dollar for a position no longer considered to be one worthy of premium investment. If the Bills want to make a top-level signing, then they could look no further than the biggest name of them all: Le’Veon Bell.
The former second-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers just turned 27, and he is coming off of two insanely productive seasons. In his last two seasons, Bell’s averaged a “slash line” of 291/1,280/8. He averaged 80 receptions, 636 receiving yards, and two receiving touchdowns, as well. Given those numbers, Bell feels that he should be the league’s highest-paid running back, and he very well may be after free agency this year.
One big problem with his last two seasons, however, is that the 2018 season isn’t one of them. Bell didn’t miss the year because of injury, of course, as he instead decided to sit out as a result of the Steelers having used the franchise tag on him for the second consecutive season. Bell has not played football since January 14, 2018, a 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he carried the ball 16 times for 67 yards and caught nine passes for 88 yards. He added two touchdowns—one rushing and one receiving—in the losing effort.
Should the Bills pursue Bell as their replacement for LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory? Here is the tale of the tape.
Bell is an incredibly patient runner. He waits for lanes to develop and hits holes hard. He is equally comfortable bouncing outside as he is slamming between the tackles. In Pittsburgh’s zone blocking scheme, he flourished, averaging 4.5 yards per carry since Mike Munchak was hired as offensive line coach in 2014. Munchak’s preference for an outside-zone scheme allows a back to cut inside the tackle or outside of the tight end, and a back with elite vision like Bell can do a tremendous amount of damage. With new Bills offensive line coach Bobby Johnson a disciple of Joe D’Alessandris and Dave DeGuglielmo, men who preferred zone-blocking schemes, Bell would be a natural fit in the offense.
Bell is one of the best backs in the game when it comes to acting as a receiver. He has 312 receptions for 2,660 yards in his 62 NFL games. For comparison’s sake, LeSean McCoy, who is also a great receiver out of the backfield, has 475 receptions and 3,616 receiving yards in his career—which includes 147 games. Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, ran plenty of empty sets last season with rookie quarterback Josh Allen, and a dual-threat running back like Bell would help to create brutal match-ups for defenses.
Conditioning and Motivation an Issue?
It has to be a consideration, right? On the positive end, Bell hasn’t taken a hit in an NFL game in over a year, which is a good thing considering he has already racked up 1,541 regular-season touches in his NFL career. On the other hand, Bell hasn’t had to prepare for a football season since the 2017 offseason, and recent reports suggested that he may have weighed as much as 260 pounds at some point during his time away from the game. While Bell’s trainer has disputed that notion, and Bell has made light of it, there is legitimate concern about his being in “football shape,” especially given his desire to earn a huge paycheck.
Speaking of that paycheck, should teams be concerned that Bell was willing to miss an entire year when his team, the Steelers, were viewed by many as one of the only legitimate challengers for the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots? There are plenty of instances from history where a players earns a huge paycheck, becomes complacent, and ceases to perform at the level that helped him to earn that check in the first place. Given the success of his replacement, James Conner, in 2018 (215 carries, 973 yards, 12 touchdowns, 55 receptions, 497 yards, one touchdown), it’s a valid question to wonder whether Bell is worth the money he thinks he’s worth.
What Will He Cost?
Great question. Bell reportedly wants more than $17 million per season, as he reportedly turned down a five-year deal worth $70 million before last season began. It’s also been reported that he wants more than $45 million guaranteed, which would top the guaranteed money amount given to Todd Gurley by the Los Angeles Rams. In short, Bell will cost a tremendous amount of money, unless a market for him at the rate he desires never materializes, an unlikely scenario given his proven track record and tremendous talent.
A record-breaking contract for a running back is not out of the question for Bell, and if the Bills want him, they’ll have to use a big chunk of their cap resources in order to acquire him. This is not a path that I would recommend, as a team with as many needs as the Bills have can more judiciously spend their dollars to improve. Bell would be a splashy signing, for sure, but he wouldn’t necessarily be a smart signing.