Throughout the offseason, I will be preparing a collection of articles that will focus on free agents and trade candidates. The articles will discuss the player in question, and what the move does to their value, as well as what their landing spot means for their new and old teams.
Before free agents officially signed though, I wanted to get in a comprehensive analysis of Le’Veon Bell who has been designated with the Franchise Tag for 2017. I want to evaluate where he and the Steelers are in 2017 and where they might be in the future should they part ways.
Currently, the dynasty RB3 on DLF Bell had himself another great season that made those who gambled on his 3-game suspension a likely championship caliber team. Since his tagging, there are talks that he and the Steelers are looking at a big extension that could make him the highest-paid running back in the league. Even if they don’t come to an agreement before the July 15 deadline the Steelers would have the option to tag him again for next season. But would Bell play under a second tag? I posted a poll on Twitter asking the community what they thought Bell would do if he was placed under the tag.
The community expects him to play, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as one might think. In fact, holding out after a potential second tag in 2018 was only 1% different and his expectation to hold out this year was also reasonably high. Bell hasn’t expressed any interest in holding out, so we’ll expect him and the Steelers to come to an agreement in the coming months. But the devil will be in details of what the contract really says about the Steelers commitment to him. Too often the headline after signings will read, “Player and Team agree to a $45M deal over 4 years”, but what does that really mean? If it is very front loaded with the guaranteed money drying up after the second year then this can really just equate to a 2 year extension.
The Steelers will also show their hand in this year’s draft by how they handle the running back position. Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette will not be drafted by the Steelers in round one, but a serious investment at the end of day 2 or even a high day 3 running back selection could signal that the team is already thinking past the days of Bell. I think Joe Mixon, another running back with a troubling history would be the perfect fit for the Steelers in this draft. The franchise is well insulated to handle an expected media frenzy that would come with his selection, and they wouldn’t have to invest as high a value pick because of his history (likely 3rd to 5th round). He could be an excellent bargaining chip for the Steelers to hold over Bell’s head in future contract talks. If Bell walks, Mixon can step right in after the media storm blows over after 2017. If they sign him they still have an excellent talent at backup in case of injury or major suspension.
So what would the Steelers be with/without Bell then?
We know what the Steelers are with Bell lining up behind Ben Roethlisberger and keeping defenses honest for Antonio Brown to work all over the secondary. They are one of the most prolific offenses in the league, and are frequently in the top 10 in terms of scoring and total yards. But what if Bell held out or the Steelers moved on?
We had glimpses of what this scenario would be like, with mixed results, thanks to recent suspensions and the injuries that Bell had in 2015 and 2016. In early 2015 DeAngelo Williams was as good as Bell to fantasy owners. He also held up for those who kept him through midseason when he picked right back up after Bell went out with a leg injury for the rest of the season. It started the same in 2016 when Williams had to fill in for Bell again at the start the season due to suspension. However in the playoff game against New England when Bell could only play the first quarter the Steelers couldn’t get anything going on offense. The defense took away Brown with double coverage and the running game was stale for most of the game.
This might be why the Steelers are willing to sign Bell to a long-term deal because they saw that without him they might not be able to get over the hump that is New England in the AFC. But the question still remains as to whether any above average running backs like the previously mentioned Joe Mixon, would do equally as well in Pittsburgh’s offense for what could be a fraction of Bell’s cost?
So what does this mean for Bell as a fantasy asset?
Short of taking another ill-timed puff of the funny stuff I expect Bell to be dominant in 2017; maybe not as dominant on a per game basis as he was down the stretch last year but still a locked-in RB1. The interesting evaluation will be what his value is in 2018? Depending on his contract situation and what the Steelers do to fill his backup role this off-season he could be an excellent sell-high asset. Even in 2017 for owners that are not in their championship window, this could be the best (and maybe last) year to sell Bell for a fist full of picks and/or young players.
For those of you who have him in your Auction this season do not get sucked into offering him a huge $70M/4year deal. Remember that the back years of RSO deals are where the cap hit is at its highest so let other owners commit long term to him. Instead try and get him with only a 2-year deal which gives you the flexibility to hold him or move him at the end of 2017 based on what he does.
Make sure to continue to read more Free Agency Expectancy articles throughout the offseason to be prepared for your summer Auctions. Have a player that you want me to evaluate? Send me a message on Twitter @naandrews19.
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