One team — Super Bowl LIII contenders, in fact — are in desperate need for an every-down running back. If you think I am referring to the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re wrong.
The Philadelphia Eagles were dealt a massive blow on Monday when it was revealed that Jay Ajayi would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. As much as this hurts the Eagles — who relied on an effective Ajayi and his 4.4 YPC down the stretch in last year’s playoffs — it’s the player that suffers the most. The 25-year-old will be a free agent at season’s end and will now likely have to settle for a one-year, prove it deal to regain some value in 2019.
There happens to be one running back currently mired in the drama of a holdout on the trade block. The Steelers — widely known to be shopping Le’Veon Bell in hopes of acquiring an asset or two before he hits free agency — match up well as trade partners. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, and reports stating the Eagles are not expected to pursue Bell, the timing — at least for Bell and the Steelers — is perfect. For the Eagles, this looks like a leap worth taking.
The Eagles badly need a spark
Entering Thursday’s Week 6 matchup against the New York Giants, the Eagles (2–3) have ranked in the middle of the pack in rushing. Ajayi leads in almost every meaningful category with Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement as the next backs in line for an extended opportunity. Darren Sproles is another.
Of that trio, Smallwood appears to have a slight edge. In only 25 attempts, the diminutive back has managed 125 yards (6.0 YPC) and is fifth on the team in receptions (10) with 96 yards and a touchdown. Both he and Clement aren’t true, every down backs, so touches are likely to be spread out among them with Sproles, if healthy, earning some looks as a receiver. On top of Bell’s elite rushing ability, it’s on the receiving end where he could slot in immediately and give this backfield a boost.
Tight end Zach Ertz has been the team’s best receiver, followed by Alshon Jefferey and Nelson Agholor. Adding Bell to that mix would give quarterback Carson Wentz another reliable target in the passing game, improving an offense that currently ranks 21st in total Yards Per Game, and one in the bottom half of the league in reception touchdowns (6).
In his recent discussion with ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Bell mentioned the Eagles as a potential fit. Even with some analysts pouring cold water on a Steelers-Eagles trade, it’s difficult to imagine both sides not exploring the matter, at the very least.
The Bell drama in Pittsburgh
Bell put an end to his silence and, other than the occasional social media post, spoke publicly for the first time since his contract negotiations with the Steelers went stale, which led to Bell failing to sign his $14.5-million franchise tag. His decision to stay home has come at a cost as Bell has forfeited $855,000 every week and, outside of money, appears to have lost several supporters in the Steelers locker room. Bell, though, still believes the Steelers will welcome him back.
“I’ve got a lot of good relationships with players on the team,” Bell told Fowler just over a week ago. “They probably think I backdoored them. But I think they understand the decision. At the end of the day, they said what they said in the media. I’m not really too upset about it. It was a little disappointing, but I understand their side. When I talk to them, I hope they get that side of it.”
The young back even went as far as to say that he wants to win a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh and retire as a Steeler. Bell’s recent comments are still ambiguous, and it’s unclear if they hold any real substance or if it’s merely a public relations ploy to let interested teams know that he’s determined to play football this year. If he wants to get that big-money contract this offseason, Bell needs to sign his franchise tag by Week 11. He’s expected to report to the team after the Steelers Week 7 bye, which would place him in line to play in Week 8 against the Browns.
All along, Bell has made it clear that he’s held out not to spite the organization or his teammates, but to preserve his body as he enters free agency. For Bell and his camp, that seems to be a prudent call. Since his rookie season in 2013, only seven active running backs — Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, and Alfred Morris — have more career rushing attempts. To put that into perspective, Bell has reached those totals (1,229) in only five seasons, with Morris (1,324) as the next man up, accumulating his rushing attempts in seven years, respectively. Others like Peterson, Gore, and Lynch, for example, have all played for 10 seasons or more.
Bell receiving statistics since 2013
*Bell missed a combined 10 games in 2015 due to a suspension and MCL injury
In short, Bell believes he should be paid not only as an elite-level running back but as a receiver, too. As the stats show, he has a strong case, especially if you factor what other top-tier backs earned recently. Todd Gurley and David Johnson were both rewarded with separate extensions and will earn between $31 million and $45 million in guaranteed money. The Steelers recent offer to Bell included only $17 million in guarantees, which ultimately forced his hand.
In his place, the Steelers have relied on James Conner who, despite some ups and downs, has produced well to this season. If the organization stays true to its original intentions and trades Bell, it would conclude a long saga and signal the end of an era in Pittsburgh. With or without Bell, the Steelers have issues that need resolving before they can be reconsidered as contenders. His presence would surely help, but a reunion, even for the remainder of the season, seems unlikely.
What a deal could look like + Bell’s future in Philadelphia
If a trade were to come to fruition, Bell would need to sign the franchise tender and report to his new team. With Week 5 now over, and the Eagles set to play on Thursday, Bell’s first chance at game action could come in Week 7 against the Carolina Panthers. That would mean Bell suiting up in 10 games, barring good health, before heading into free agency. Despite his firm stance on intending to return to the Steelers this season, Bell did say that if the team approached him about a trade, he would consider it.
“I would have to know everything,” Bell told Fowler. “It depends on what team it is and whether they want to do a long-term deal after the tag. If they really wanted to do a long-term deal, they could get me traded.”
Helping the Eagles cause is three draft picks in the first two rounds (their own first and second round pick, as well as another second rounder courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens). According to a report from NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport, the Steelers have set an asking price of a second-round draft pick and a good-to-decent roster player. Other teams around the NFL could meet the same demands, but the fact that the Eagles possess two-second rounders has to intrigue both parties.
The Eagles were going to head into the offseason with Ajayi as a pending free agent anyway, so the front office could acquire Bell and try to negotiate a long-term deal with him instead. Philadelphia recently restructured defensive tackle Fletcher Cox’s contract to create $6.5 million in additional cap space for the rest of 2018, and $11.7 million for the 2019 season, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and Schefter. That would give the Eagles approximately $11 million in available salary under the current cap, and just so happens to coincide with Bell’s 2018 salary, which stands at roughly $10.2 million if he reports in Week 6, decreasing to $9.4 million in Week 7, and so on.
Whether or not the flexibility has anything to do with a possible trade, the Eagles are already going to be tight against the cap this offseason, which will be a significant deterrent in the prospects of a long-term deal. Of course, the Eagles could always acquire Bell as a rental and ride his production into the sunset — or in this case, the offseason. Surrendering assets would then be a tough sell, but Bell’s presence, if only for the remainder of the season, would go a long way in cementing the Eagles as threats to repeat as division, and, potentially, Super Bowl champions.