The Steelers will have one of the league's most dynamic offenses next season. The degree of that dynamism will depend on several factors. Injuries are always a chief concern, and there's a chance that Martavis Bryant, fresh off a year-long suspension, slips up again.
Then there's Le'Veon Bell.
The NFL's best running back is without a contract; the Steelers slapped him with the franchise tag this spring, but Bell has yet to sign the one-year deal . It's not unusual for players looking for a long-term commitment to hold off on signing the one-year franchise-tag offer, and the two sides have until mid-July to get a new contract done. At issue is whether the Steelers will pay Bell $12 million annually -- which would be $4 million more than the next highest-paid back in the league, LeSean McCoy of the Bills.
Worth noting: McCoy and Bell ranked second and third in running back efficiency last season, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, but McCoy will be 29 when the season starts while Bell will be just 25.
As it stands, Bell and the Steelers are on good terms, and the expectation is that either Bell will get a new deal before the start of the season or, worst case, he'll play on the one-year, $12.1 million franchise tag. But what happens to Pittsburgh if Bell isn't part of its 2017? What impact would that have not only on the continuity of an already-explosive offense but the team's chances for another deep playoff run? Because training camps are still weeks away, now is the perfect time to tackle that hypothetical.
Bell rushed for 1,268 yards last season (4.9 yards per carry), scored seven touchdowns and had 75 receptions for 616 yards and two more scores. He was even better on the ground during the postseason (65 carries, 357 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, two TDs) but a nonfactor in the passing game (four receptions, three yards, no TDs).
Of course, Bell's 2016 season ended like the two before: with him injured. This time, however, he participated in the playoffs, though he suffered a groin injury early in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. In 2015, a knee injury knocked him out of the second half of the season, and in 2014, a Week 17 knee injury kept him on the sidelines during the Steelers' wild-card loss to the Ravens. So for as valuable as Bell is, he has played in just two of the Steelers' last six playoff games. And in his four NFL seasons, he has appeared in 16 regular-season games just once, in 2014. Either because of injury or suspension, he has missed 17 games in that time.
During the 2014 postseason, the Steelers were left with no choice but to lean on first-year back Josh Harris and just-signed veteran Ben Tate. When it was over, the two had rushed for 44 yards on 14 carries (3.1 yards per carry) and no touchdowns as the Ravens cruised to a 30-17 win. A year later, the Steelers, again without Bell, had to turn to a running back-by-committee approach that included Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman because Bell's backup, DeAngelo Williams, was also injured. The results were better; the duo combined for 168 yards on 45 carries (3.7 YPC) and a touchdown. And if not for a careless Toussaint fumble against the Broncos in the divisional-round matchup, the Steelers might have made back-to-back conference championship game appearances. But that's sort of the point; Bell doesn't fumble there.
Williams, when healthy, was a capable backup behind Bell. In 2015, with Bell sidelined for all but six games, Williams (then 32 years old) rushed for 907 yards (4.5 YPC) and 11 touchdowns. And last season, in a much more limited role, he had 343 yards (3.5 YPC) and four scores. Williams wasn't re-signed and the Steelers selected Pitt standout James Conner in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and signed former Chiefs back Knile Davis to not only help the running game but also return kicks. It's reasonable to expect both players to be above-replacement-level contributors for the low, low price of $1.26 million combined in 2017. Is Bell worth 9.6 times the productivity of Conner and Davis?
He might be. But the Steelers have so many other play-making options that perhaps Bell is expendable. Remember, in that playoff loss to the Broncos, Pittsburgh was also without Antonio Brown, who you might recall by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the wild-card game. Up to that point, Brown had hauled in seven passes for 119 yards. A week later, Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Bryant teamed up for nine receptions for 154 yards, but there was little else in the way of a passing game.
As a way of comparison with Bell, Brown -- who came into the league in 2010 -- has missed just one of the Steelers' 10 postseason games over that span. And since 2011, when he became a regular part of the offense, he has missed just four games. Put another way: You can make a case that Brown is more important to the Steelers' offense than Bell.
The Steelers signed Brown to a Sammie Coates, battled injuries and inconsistency for much of 2016 (21 catches, 435 yards, two TDs). Slot receiver Eli Rogers (48/594/3) was good in his first season but didn't keep defenses from double and triple-teaming Brown. In fact, when it was over, Bell was the Steelers' second-leading receiver.in February after a season in which he had 106 receptions for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns. And he did it with little to no help from the rest of the wide receiver corps. Bryant was suspended and his replacement,
Which reinforces the point that Bell is a special talent. Part of what makes him indispensable to Pittsburgh's offense is that he's as dangerous as a receiver as he is as a runner. That versatility makes life eminently easier for Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley while serving as a nightmare for opposing defenses. It's also why we're talking about Bell earning eight figures annually.
Consider the top running backs (in terms of annual average salary) behind McCoy's $8 million salary: Jonathan Stewart ($7.3 million), Doug Martin ($7.15 million), Lamar Miller ($6.5 million) and Chris Ivory ($6.4 million). They're all runners first, and offer little to nothing in the passing game. (Rookie Leonard Fournette will make $6.7 million in 2017 and he's also more runner than pass-catcher.)
For the Steelers, Bell is another chess piece JuJu Smith-Schuster and that offensive line. There are still questions at tight end (the team released Ladarius Green this offseason but is high on Jesse James) and at wide receiver (can Bryant stay out of trouble, can Coates play with consistency, etc.), but how different would this unit be in a world without Le'Veon Bell in the backfield?-- to go along with Brown, Roethlisberger, rookie second-rounder
We're not arguing that the Steelers would be better without Bell because, well, that's simply not true. But $12 million is a lot to pay any running back, particularly one that missed games due to injury and suspension. There's also the matter that the organization might not be interested in paying Bell $12 million, on average, for the next four or five years, partly because of what we mentioned above, and partly because running backs have a short shelf life. And oh by the way: There's also the long list of play-makers not named Bell currently on the Steelers' roster.
To reiterate what we wrote above: The Steelers are better with Bell but it's not clear he's worth an eight-figure salary for the foreseeable future, or that the offense would experience a precipitous drop off without him. The same can't be said for Brown, who averages $17 million a year, and no one questions if he's worth it.
For a team coming off an 11-5 record, a division title and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game -- and are better (on paper, anyway) now than they were at the end of last season -- these are good problems to have.