Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell said last week that he’s prepared to sit out a season, or even retire, if he is hit with the franchise tag for the second consecutive year. The 25-year-old Bell played on a $12.1 million franchise tag in 2017, and that number is projected to increase to around $14.5 million for next season.
Last July, Bell turned down a long-term contract that reports said was worth up to $30 million in the first two years because he felt the team didn’t value his full skill set.
The Steelers could let Bell test the free-agent market to try to get a long-term deal elsewhere. Pittsburgh drafted James Conner in the third round in 2017, and Fitzgerald Toussaint is a restricted free agent, so the Steelers have replacement options on their roster.
We asked our panel of ESPN NFL insiders to weigh in on Bell’s realistic next steps:
Which team is the best fit for Bell in 2018?
Jeremy Fowler, ESPN NFL Nation Steelers writer: Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell’s do-it-all skill set pairs well with several teams armed with cap space. A Bell-Jimmy Garoppolo-Kyle Shanahan attack in San Francisco would deepen the intrigue in the NFC West. But for as much as Bell wants to test his true value on the market, he knows the Steelers offer him the best on-field package, which provides hope for a long-term deal. The Steelers have invested five years in Bell. They watched him turn into a star and got him the ball more than 1,600 times. Letting him walk runs contrary to their draft/develop/pay strategy for cornerstone players. Riding a trio of Bell, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown is still the Steelers’ best route to a Super Bowl. Tagging Bell at $14 million-plus is good business for the Steelers. Offering him an impressive deal is even better business, assuming they structure it with escape hatches after two years. That places the onus on Bell to decide whether sitting out 2018 is really worth it.
Matthew Berry, senior fantasy analyst: Pittsburgh Steelers, but … Under the age old adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” staying with the Steelers is the ideal spot. It’s a team and offense that know him and his skill set well and will use him in a variety of ways to take full advantage of his talents. He has become one of the best — if not the best — running backs in the league there, and with Roethlisberger announcing his intention to return, it makes the most sense. If that doesn’t work, he should go to a team with a good offense that only lacks a true franchise back. Taking money out of it and just looking at the best fit, how about the Detroit Lions? They have a great quarterback in Matthew Stafford and an improving defense, but the issue for years has been their inability to run the ball. Ameer Abdullah has struggled with inconsistency and injuries, and Theo Riddick is a nice change-of-pace player but not a true three-down back. Adding a franchise back like Bell, especially with his pass-catching abilities, to a Stafford-led offense would greatly improve the Lions as they look to get back to the playoffs with a new head coach in a tough division.
Mike Clay, NFL writer: New England Patriots. Though a return to Pittsburgh is the most logical and likely outcome, there are plenty of terrific fits for Bell across the league. The one that stands out most to me (cover your ears, Steelers fans) is in New England. Bill Belichick has been guilty of “tipping” pass or run based on personnel in recent years (85 percent of James White‘s snaps have been passes, compared to 29 percent for Mike Gillislee this season, for example), so he could look to become less predictable by bringing in the super-versatile back. Bell has racked up at least 261 carries and 75 catches during each of the past three seasons in which he has played in at least 12 games. Tom Brady will be 41 when the 2018 season begins, and he could use the additional weapon. Considering Belichick’s committee-heavy history, it seems like a long shot that the Patriots would spend big on a running back, but Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are both unrestricted free agents, and Gillislee quickly fell out of favor after rushing for three touchdowns in Week 1.
Dan Graziano, NFL writer: Pittsburgh Steelers. They know they can run their offense through him, that they can use him as a runner and a receiver, that he coexists peacefully with their other stars and that they can win tons of games with him. For Bell, the comfort level of knowing all those things has to matter, too. Can he be sure he’d be used the same way elsewhere that the Steelers use him? Would he be happy if he went to a team that didn’t? The Steelers may still want to go year to year on Bell, given his history of injuries and suspensions. But he didn’t have any of those issues in 2017, and if they were looking for him to “prove it” on the franchise tag, he absolutely did. They should be able to work out something, unless one side’s demands proves too out of line with the market. So far, that has been Bell’s side.
Field Yates, NFL Insider: Cleveland Browns. In a piece that ran earlier this season, I tackled this exact question by noting that a return to Pittsburgh makes sense and is probably where he winds up. But if we were to explore other options, wouldn’t a fit in Cleveland add up? Want to take pressure off a rookie quarterback? Having the best back in the league alongside would be a great place to start. Bell has shown that he can handle an incredible workload, piling up touches as a runner and a receiver, plus the Browns have virtually limitless cap space to afford any player of their liking in free agency.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Pittsburgh Steelers. With his versatile skill set, plus the ability to handle high-volume touches, Bell is one of the catalysts for the Steelers’ high-powered offense. And while he could obviously fit as a featured back with multiple offenses in the league, his talent and overall usage is maximized in the Pittsburgh game plan.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are clearly the best spot for him. Coaches, evaluators and agents I’ve polled generally thought Bell would have been wise to accept what was offered. If he leaves, he’d be a great fit for any team without an established top back. Cleveland could help itself and hurt a division rival. Tampa Bay has taken chances on talented players carrying baggage of varying types. The Bucs should probably think twice before adding another one, but the need for a running back is obvious and the stakes are high for coach Dirk Koetter.