The year is 2017. Despite losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Divisional Round, the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed another strong campaign, going 13-3 in the regular season and winning all six games against fellow AFC North rivals. And while the team’s defense held up its reputation of a steady unit, it was the offensive group that provided a dramatic push. Even though the air raid rightfully assumed most of the praise, Le’Veon Bell was still considered one of the best running backs in the NFL.
The fifth-year Pittsburgh draftee out of Michigan State finished the season as the most used ground-game weapon in the league and the only runner with more than 300 carries. Moreover, he was voted into his third Pro Bowl and his second All-Pro selection. Despite missing out on a significant amount of playing in each of his previous two campaigns, the Ohio native had averaged more than 4.7 yards per run for three years in a row while serving as the Steelers’ first-choice running back heading into somewhat a down year. Although his production declined to 4.0 yards per carry, no decision-maker within the front offices of the 32 NFL teams, let alone the Pittsburgh Steelers, was concerned enough to foresee what the future would hold for the 2013 second-round pick.
Just three years later, Bell would go on from that to having a terrible slate in New York, to getting released and being assigned a second-string role in Kansas City. But this was just a glimpse at the worst that was yet to come. During the ensuing offseason, after the conclusion of the 2020 NFL season, Le’Veon Bell’s status as a free agent would catch the attention of a grand total of zero general managers.
Once thought of as a star in the making, Bell went from being incredibly relied on, even overly so in some years, to an asset that nobody wants and whose value is shrinking by the second. That would bear the following question: How did this drastic, negative turnaround come to be?
Luck and Glory
Considering his initial draft position, Le’Veon Bell not only unveiled the tremendous potential he had but also overperformed his expectations in the process.
Bell was drafted 48th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft after spending three seasons with the Spartans in East Lansing. Based on his outlook prior to the second day of that year’s edition of the world’s oldest sports draft, the outburst in production that occurred on the outset could have been expected. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t Michigan State’s primary running back during his freshman year but the signs he sent to evaluators during the following two campaigns, with the workload to ensure credibility, were beyond promising.
Bell produced 5.2 yards per carry on 182 rushes in 2011. Meanwhile, he kept this figure in the same range (4.7) the next season despite leading Division I in carries. This was when his potential to turn into a consistent and elite running back on the NFL level became apparent.
His rookie year in 2013 was justifiably unimpressive with an average turnout of just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. Furthermore, it pales in comparison with the four-year stretch that would follow and witness the former second-round pick put on better numbers than almost every other NFL RB over that period.
The 2014 season was perhaps the best in Bell’s seven-year professional tenure. That season, Le’Veon Bell posted an average of 4.7 yards on 290 rushing attempts. This usage rate was the third-heaviest in the entire league. In the meantime, his productivity rate was the seventh-best amongst the seventeen backs with at least 200 carries. That performance earned him his first Pro-Bowl and All-Pro accolades while lifting the Steelers’ ground-game faction from 29th and 3.5 yards per carry (2013) to 16th and 4.1 yards per carry.
Now raising eyebrows all over pro football, Bell would spend the better part of the 2015 campaign out with an injury, also missing three games with a substance-abuse suspension. Yet, he made up for that by improving upon his sensational sophomore year. Pittsburgh’s star asset on the ground turned in 4.9 yards per run across 261 carries.
Now Bell was much closer to a reliable and consistent running back than a one-season flop. However, as the calendar turned to 2017, his rookie deal was up. Pittsburgh had no other choice but to either let him go or use the franchise tag to keep Le’Veon Bell aboard.
The $12.12 million he received via the tag would go on to not just represent, seemingly unmeasured, risk for the Steelers but also misguide his future suitors. Nonetheless, this prospect wasn’t a realistic concern at the time, it seemed like nothing could go wrong for the Steelers-Bell connection. But, eventually, what could have gone wrong indeed went wrong, for Bell more so than for the Pennsylvania-based franchise.
The Shrinking King
Despite the noticeable downtick in efficiency and productivity per rushing play during the 2017 season, nobody, either within the organization or the industry as a whole, expressed even the slightest bit of concern regarding Le’Veon Bell’s NFL future.
Furthermore, that continued to be the case in the next 12-16 months as Pittsburgh’s star running declined to play for his team. The financial demands of Bell, who was to enter the last year of his rookie deal, were not appealing to the Steelers front office. Instead, James Conner turned out to be fairly impressive, taking over Bell’s job and posting numbers better than Le’Veon had turned in the year prior.
Nonetheless, this positive campaign alone was unlikely to prove Connor was ready to put on figures in that range in the long term, thus being a better option to Pittsburgh due to his cheap price. Moreover, Le’Veon Bell was still a household name amongst NFL general managers and front offices that were bound to get in the middle of a bidding war, and receive a huge payday as a result, should the Steelers decide to let him go.
Yet, Pittsburgh was more than confident in James Conner’s outlook, knowing that he opens up possibilities of upgrades elsewhere on the field. That way, Le’Veon Bell, who had not played a snap since the Steelers’ loss to Jacksonville on the NFL’s “Road to Super Bowl LII”, joined the plethora of demand-ridden assets on the free-agent market. It was certain from the very start that most teams didn’t agree with the Steelers and still valued Bell highly.
The New York Jets, having just addressed their air raid issues, were chasing the prospect of having justified postseason aspirations. Turing the running stable into a reliable unit was a crucial part of the plan to establish a high-scoring and balanced offensive group.
Therefore, their inquiry into negotiations with Le’Veon Bell’s team overwent no delay. In late March, the Jets officially added the former Steeler on a four-year deal that was, in terms of per-season obligations, was just short of the $14 million he got while sitting out the 2018 campaign. This signing would charge the New York ballclub with hopes that the winds of change were close to blowing. However, the tides would turn even more quickly than the amount of time it took for the Steelers to realize Bell’s emerging shortcomings.
Entering his first season in East Rutherford, the Michigan State product was given a complete carte blanche to lead the Jets’ running unit. Moreover, he was almost fully healthy, starting 15 of New York’s sixteen regular-season matchups, whereas his workload was near that of his prime. However, the results couldn’t have been more contrasting.
During the 2019 NFL season, Le’Veon Bell only averaged 3.2 yards on 245 carries. The former was, by a mile, the worst value in this career Bell had posted in his career. The downfall is also subject to comparisons because the sample was within 45 attempts of the samples during his two best years – 2014 and 2016. The difference in productivity on the ground represents a drop of 34 percent in yards per carry. Also, with 3.3 yards per rushing attempt, New York’s ground group was the worst in all of NFL football that year. Not only all that but the price paid for these struggles was somewhere around $13.5 million.
The slow 2017 season should have perhaps served as an alarm for the rest of the league that Bell was not suitable for a bigger responsibility. That, when coupled with a missed campaign, was lethal for his productivity. However, even this degree of woeful play was not insolated and explainable.
The following season saw Bell on the field less with hamstring and, later, knee problems. Even the limited time over which he saw the field didn’t create sweet fruit of labor – just 4.0 yards per carry on little over 80 rushes with the Jets and the Chiefs.
Le’Veon Bell only appeared in combined eleven games in New York and Kansas City. But even after he was cut by Joe Douglas and joined KC for next to nothing, he was primarily used through the air – a department where he enjoyed much success in Pittsburgh – but remained drastically behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the running back depth chart. Furthermore, the demand-related problems carried onto the 2021 offseason, after which he remained unemployed within the NFL’s system.
It would be difficult to say what the main causes of Le’Veon Bell’s monumental collapse were. However, it is clear that the signs of this prospect were available earlier than most teams saw them. Most of the focus has to be placed on his 2018 campaign, which was rich in playing time yet lacked a satisfying outcome. In most cases, it would be a mistake to only judge a single season with campaigns with reverse results in the background.
However, this dramatic downfall came as Bell was becoming more mature and experienced and, as he was drawing closer to his prime, should have improved continuously or, in the case of a player who starts off well, keep up his previous work. The two seasons that followed his sit-out in 2018 would show that this 2017 campaign indeed was very indicative. And the consequences were to be dire for many of the parties involved.
Consequences and Forward Outlook
New York Jets
Although many teams were willing to meet Bell’s financial demands in 2019, only the Jets were foolish enough to offer more than the competition for a player who was about to show he wasn’t worth even what the first franchise tag gave him.
That way, on the second anniversary of the “Le’Veon Bell Sweepstakes”, the Jets, who made the expensive investment, came out in the worst fashion. The damages include, but are not limited to, a season at the bottom of the league in rushing, a season as the seventh-worst team on the ground, $15 million in dead cap in 2020, and $4 million in dead cap in 2021. The inability to address other needs and the mere underperformance should not be overlooked either.
In terms of actual ground-game turnout, the Steelers wouldn’t gain much. James Conner would follow his solid 2018 up with 2019 and 2020 campaigns with average yardage of 4.0 and 4.3, respectively. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh would be amongst the four least productive clubs in each year, finishing last in the NFL in the latter. These results are similar to the Jets’.
However, what is different is the financial win the Steelers’ front office posted by going with Conner instead of Bell. Pittsburgh only paid Conner $3 million for his services through 2020. That is four times less than the average obligations by the Jets to Bell (guaranteed plus non-guaranteed). It is no surprise that, throughout that span, the Jets would build up teams with records of 7-9 and 2-14 and the Steelers would post 8-8 and 12-4, respectively.
Le’Veon Bell’s Outlook
The lack of interest and the shrinking value now attached to Bell’s name are expected after the three-year span that has just passed. If Le’Veon Bell plays at all in 2021, it would be on a very cheap contract, perhaps comparable to James Conner’s.
However, that has not only damaged his current value but the outlook of his statistical identity throughout the remainder of his professional career. After eight seasons, and one that was voluntarily missed, Bell is close to his prime, when adding age and experience in the mix, and even to the point from which his figures would start to gradually decrease. As of currently, these numbers haven’t settled in a promising territory. Therefore, Bell might not have many remaining campaigns like the ones he turned in at the outset of his NFL path. For this to be the prevailing overall turnout also seems highly unlikely.