We've been waiting to see Le'Veon Bell hit free agency for quite some time. Two years to be exact! The Steelers running back always seemed like someone Pittsburgh would lock up on a deal, but the franchise tag got in the way and he ended up sitting out the entire season. Thus we've been subject to .
Here's another one! This one actually makes sense, because free agency is coming around the mountain, with the new league year set to open in less than a week, and the legal tampering window becoming a perfect time for Bell and his reps to get a bidding war started between questionable teams with tons of cap space.
With that in mind, let's look at the five most likely destinations for Bell this offseason. We're looking for a blend of cap space, a need to win right now for the coaching staff/front office, a young quarterback in need of a safety valve and a lack of talent on the running back depth chart.
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The most obvious choice because Bell has been connected with New York over the past few months with great frequency. Also because the Jets have tons of cap space -- they carried over $12.2 million, giving them $99 million in total cap space -- and a need at the running back position. Bilal Powell, their best pass catching back, is a free agent. Isaiah Crowell and Elijah McGuire top the depth chart. Bell would be an expensive proposition, as he's expected to look for something in the range of what Todd Gurley got ($60 million total) and maybe more since he's completely unrestricted as a free agent. Bell, one of the best pass-catching backs in football when he's on the field, would be an excellent fit in Adam Gase's short passing game. He would give Sam Darnold a short-yardage target who can move all over the field and operate as a safety valve. Last year the Jets spent heavily in draft capital to move up and get Darnold. Now they need to surround him with high-end skill position talent. Without a second-round pick, they might need to look at free agency. Smart teams zig when everyone else is zagging and the Jets might be able to get Bell at a suppressed price given how teams are scared off by running backs.
The idea that the Raiders are just going to slow play life and be terrible until they get to Las Vegas makes sense, but it's hard to imagine Jon Gruden being happy just limping through life and tarnishing up his reputation. Instead, what about making a major splash in not just the trade market -- giving up a late first-round pick for Antonio Brown -- but also making a major splash in free agency? I'm dead serious here: the Raiders stunk last year and they won't be good this year without some help for Derek Carr. Give up a second-round pick (No. 35) for Brown, pay Bell a bunch of money, draft a stud defensive player at No. 4, grab T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant later and then pick up a receiver at the back end of the first round and the Raiders might be cooking with a little gas. (Or go defense-defense-receiver; any combo of three players in this draft would be good.) My gut says the Raiders are trying to stick to a plan that involves them eventually having their roster hit an age range that is prime to win as they move to Las Vegas (and I think last year bears that out), but I also think Gruden can't deal with losing badly multiple years in a row and the idea of adding Brown/Bell is very appealing. Bell at the least would do some serious damage in Gruden's system with his ability to move all over the place while also running out of the backfield.
Kyle Shanahan likes a versatile, alpha-style runner for his system in the best-case scenario and Bell obviously fits that with his pass-catching ability. There's a reason the 49ers went out and got Jerick McKinnon in free agency last year. He's an explosive playmaker who can catch the ball as well as anyone out of the backfield. The McKinnon signing might make you blanch at the idea of San Francisco signing Bell this offseason, but I actually think their current situation bolsters the notion. For starters, signing McKinnon shows the 49ers aren't afraid to go out and spend big money on a running back in free agency. Secondly, they can get out from the McKinnon deal with fairly minimal damage: cutting the running back and designating him a post June 1 cut would cost the 49ers just $2 million in dead cap space this year and $4 million in dead cap space in 2020. San Francisco also has more than $66 million in cap space, so they could theoretically just get both guys or deal with the full McKinnon cap hit this year. Third, McKinnon is coming off an ACL, which makes him difficult to trust as a full-time back in 2019. And finally, the 49ers, based on what you hear around the league, might be feeling a little pressure to win this year, having not had much on-field success with John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. They've made smart moves, but injuries (Jimmy Garoppolo's ACL for instance) have derailed their potential between the lines. Bell would be a shot in the arm for their quarterback and that offense.
The Bucs meet most of our qualifications above. Jameis Winston is a young quarterback with accuracy issues who could use a dangerous weapon out of the backfield as a checkdown savior. Tampa is desperate to win now; they've been desperate to win for a while. Bruce Arians is in his first year but Winston only has one year left on his contract. You get the sense if this goes poorly it could be blown up again. The Bucs drafted Ronald Jones in the second round last year and that did NOT work out well. Jones and Peyton Barber are now on top of the depth chart. The Bucs do not have much salary cap space right now (under $2 million) but Jason Pierre-Paul ($14.9 million), Gerald McCoy ($13 million) and DeSean Jackson ($10 million) could all be cut without any repercussions. $7.5 million of JPP's salary in 2019 becomes fully guaranteed on March 17 -- he had 12.5 sacks last year, but at age 30, he might not be a transcendent pass rusher anymore. McCoy has remained fairly consistent but he is likely in the decline stage of his career. Whatever, you get the point: the Bucs can free up salary cap space pretty quickly if they believe Bell is a guy that can help transform their offense. And why shouldn't they? Look at what Arians did with David Johnson in Arizona. Bell could put up huge numbers in Arians' aggressive offense that implements running backs in passing formations.
The revenge play! I don't see Bell signing with the Ravens, because paying big money to a free agent running back isn't what the Ravens have done in recent years. However, this is a Baltimore team that is not exactly in great shape when it comes to their personnel. They're losing guys left and right on the defensive side of the ball. Their top receiver is Willie Snead with Michael Crabtree getting cut and John Brown heading into free agency. That's not ideal. They have 432 slightly above average tight ends, but if they're going to make this thing work with Lamar Jackson, they need a patient runner who can operate in multiple functions and also catch the ball easily out of the backfield. Le'Veon plus Lamar would be tough to deal with.