It looks like the Steelers will place the franchise tag on Le ?Veon Bell for the second straight year at some point today. Let ?s see if he takes it. Or better yet, let ?s see if he ?s worth it.
Bell may be one of the best (if not the best) backs in the game, but the Steelers should hesitate before they invest a large chunk of change to him again. The defense has holes that Bell ?s salary could help fill, and the Steelers are relying on an outdated model for their running attack. Across the league, we ?re seeing teams with two or three good running backs out producing those with one elite back. The superstar halfback is an endangered species.
According to OvertheCap.com, the Steelers spent over $13 million in cap space on running backs last year. That was the second most in football, only behind the Jaguars. At first glance, Bell lived up to his salary, finishing third in the league in rushing yards with 1,291. He likely would have won the rushing crown had he not sat out the last game of the season.
Despite that, the Steelers finished 20th in rushing yards overall. Why? Because their running game was Bell or bust.
Here’s a look at how unbalanced the Steelers ? running game was against the best in the league. Nine of the top 10 teams in rushing yards last year made the playoffs. The only exception were the Cowboys, who probably would have made the postseason had Ezekiel Elliott not been suspended.
When you compare the Steelers ? run game to the best in the league, you can see exactly how lopsided it was.
Five of the top 10 did not have a 1,000 yard rusher. Six teams got less than half of their yardage from their featured runner. Meanwhile, the Steelers, Rams, Chiefs and Bills each had at least 57% of their running game provided by one back. Those four clubs went winless in the postseason. The other five went 9-5 in the playoffs. This year ?s Super Bowl featured arguably the two most balanced rushing attacks in the Eagles and Patriots. Is it a coincidence or the start of a new mindset?
No running back accounted for more of his team ?s rushing yards than Bell did for the Steelers last year. Seven Steelers wideouts had more receiving yards than their number two back, James Conner, had on the ground. Conner didn ?t even finish with 10% of his team ?s rushing yards. Bell was the only Steeler to pick up 200 yards on the ground. The Jaguars had five players eclipse 200 rushing yards. The Cowboys and Eagles had four. The Panthers, Vikings, Bills, Rams and Patriots had three each. 86 players league wide eclipsed 200: an average of roughly 2.7 per team.
Bell also had the vast majority of the Steelers ? carries last year. Again, the Steelers relied on one back far more often than the league ?s best running teams.
The Steelers gave Bell an extra 10% of their rushing playing this past season. Three out of every four running plays went to #27. Seven of the top 10 teams gave the ball to secondary runners roughly half the time, if not more. 105 rushers league wide had at least 33 carries last year. Again, Bell was the only one with that many for the Steelers.
That ?s problematic because Bell did worse as the game progressed last season. According to the Washington Post, he averaged 4.3 yards per carry for attempts 1-10 each game last season, good for 21st best in football. That number dropped to 4 yards a pop for carries 11-20, which was 13th in football. The Post recognized nine runners with enough touches on attempts 21 and above to qualify. Bell was last with 3.6 yards per carry, which was even worse than the shattered remains of Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore.
But running the ball is not Bell ?s only forte. He is also one of the most dangerous receivers in the game, but there are a couple guys on the free agent market who might be able to give comparable production in the passing game for a fraction of the price. Here ?s how Bell stacks up against the three free agent backs who have good reputations as pass catchers.
McKinnon and Burkhead don ?t match Bell ?s sheer amount of receptions, but they put up comparable catch rates and average more yards a grab. Hyde could be a breakout candidate if he lands in the right system.
Conner could have been a breakout candidate, too, but once that tag is placed on Bell, everything changes. The free agent market is dead, Conner goes back to riding pine and the Steelers resume praying that their guy stays healthy through another 400+ touch season.
There ?s something to be said for not putting all of the eggs in one basket, especially when that basket already has a drug suspension on his record, has threatened retirement and is rapidly approaching the age where all running backs fall off a cliff. The Steelers ? window of opportunity is probably only open another year or two (or at least until Roethlisberger retires). Bell will still be a Pro-Bowler during that time, but his contract might cost the Steelers an All-Star at a different position. Is it worth twice the salary for potentially 10-20% more production?
The defense has two glaring needs: an inside linebacker and a safety. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Ryan Shazier ever laces up again. We got a look at how toothless this defense is without him down the stretch last year. Mike Mitchell is a $8 million safety who talks like a $12 million safety but plays like a $2 million dollar one. The Steelers need to go into camp with new guys and not just drafted rookies. They’re in “win now” mode. Tom Brady eats rookie safeties alive.
Simply put, the Steelers were one and done last postseason because the defense gave up 45 points to Blake Bortles. They can make a run at a Brian Cushing, Lamarcus Joyner or Ricardo Allen this season to make sure that doesn ?t happen again, or they can sign Bell.
The Steelers can Frankenstein a makeshift Bell out of buy-low free agents, Conner and a lottery ticket rookie or two. They can ?t stretch this defense any thinner. Their choices are between paying one back gobs of money to carry a mediocre running game, or shoring up the team ?s actual weaknesses. They’re going to make the wrong choice.