The Pittsburgh Steelers have arguably the NFL’s best running back and receiver but that became a problem when Le’Veon Bell decided he wants to be paid like Antonio Brown.
Actually, Bell wants to be paid like no back before him, believing himself worthy of the salary of a No. 1 running back and No. 2 receiver. His intention is to redefine the market for an All-Pro at his position, and I’m all for NFL players maximizing their money in their career window.
But Bell overestimated not just his value but his position. With the franchise tag placed upon him for a second consecutive season, Bell and the Steelers couldn’t agree to a deal Monday afternoon when the 4 p.m. deadline to negotiate a long-term contract arrived.
“It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player,” Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The Steelers are smart to do so, even if it ultimately costs them Bell.
He doesn't compare to Brown: Bell should have seen the writing on the wall. It’s not just that the Steelers wouldn’t meet his contract demands — he wanted paid on par with Brown’s $17 million annual salary – last year or this year.
The Steelers showed their priorities in the past two drafts, selecting receivers in the second round in JuJu Smith-Schuster last year and James Washington this year and running backs in the third round last year (James Conner) and fifth round this year (Jaylen Samuels).
While Bell certainly redefined his position as a big back as dangerous whether he lines up in the backfield or split wide, his production isn’t on par with that of Brown. That’s saying something, given Bell’s career touches (24.9), rushing yards (86.1), receiving yards (42.9) and yards per game (129) through his first five seasons lead all NFL running backs.
Bell ranked third in the NFL with 1,291 rushing yards and tied for third in rushing touchdowns, with nine, last year but it required 321 carries and his 655 receiving yards and two touchdowns came on 85 catches.
The Steelers will pay Bell $14.54 million in hopes he can duplicate those numbers this season. But with his history of injuries and the type of wear and tear of that workload, a break-the-bank deal doesn’t appear to be a wise long-term investment for the Steelers.
Brown, by comparison, has produced more yards per game (128.7 to 103.8) over the same span despite averaging 9.1 fewer touches per game. Brown also has 59 touchdowns to Bell’s 42, with the benefit of playing 15 more games since 2013. Where Bell scored nine touchdowns on 321 carries, Brown scored nine on 101 receptions last season.
Bell miscalculates: That shows why the Steelers value their No. 1 receiver more than their No. 1 running back, but viewing himself a No. 2 receiver is where Bell miscalculated his worth. Although his 85 catches last season ranked in the NFL’s top 10, his 7.7 yards per catch ranked seventh on the Steelers – and his two receiving touchdowns ranked behind Brown (nine), JuJu Smith-Schuster (seven), Martavis Bryant and Jesse James (three each).
So, Bell and the Steelers reached an impasse. That’s a problem for both parties, as the Steelers built an offense around Bell’s talents, including a line that maintains blocks for his patient, pick-your-hole style of running.
Bell has benefited from running behind that line, which features three Pro Bowl picks, and playing with future Hall of Famers in Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. But the Steelers passing game has been boosted by Bell’s versatility and the run-pass threat he presents a defense, even if some of those receptions are elements of the run game.
This was no time for the Steelers to be sentimental, not when Bell wanted to break the bank. Bell promised the 2018 season will be his best, but he’s already skipped voluntary OTAs and mandatory minicamp and appears set to miss training camp for the second consecutive season.
“His intention was to retire as a Steeler,” Bakari told ESPN, trying to pin blame on the team. “But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will be Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.”
If so, it’s not because the Steelers weren’t willing to pay the player. It’s because Bell wanted to be paid for a position he doesn’t really play.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.