The Buccaneers need an elusive, pass-catching every-down running back.
One possibility, at least at the moment: Le’Veon Bell.
The Steelers’ two-time All-Pro back is set to become a free agent March 14, unless he signs a new deal or Pittsburgh applies the franchise tag, which would keep him under team control for another season and guarantee him a salary of $14.5 million.
Both sides have said they want to get a deal done, and the Steelers’ recent contract restructurings hint that they’re trying to clear cap space to re-sign Bell. But if negotiations break down and Bell hits the open market next month, should the Bucs try to lure him to Tampa?
The fact that Bell had three times as many rushing yards (1,271) last season as Doug Martin (406) is a compelling enough reason to load up the Brink’s truck. Bell’s real value, though, comes in the passing game. He’s basically a No. 2 receiver. Consider this: DeSean Jackson caught 50 passes for 668 yards and three touchdowns. Bell caught 85 passes for 655 yards and two touchdowns.
Martin and Jackson earned more than $18 million combined last season, making Bell’s reported asking price of about $15 million per season look like a bargain. Given teams’ depressed valuation of running backs, though, Bell isn’t likely to get a long-term offer with that annual average. Even if he can be signed for, say, five years and $60 million, the Bucs should look elsewhere.
Yes, Bell is proven. He is young (he turns 26 Sunday). His production is impressive. It’s also unlikely to continue.
It’s tempting to look at his rushing yardage and his catches and see a Hall of Fame-caliber player. But if we fixate on those statistics, we risk overlooking a red flag:
Bell carried or caught the football 406 times last season (and 25 more times in the postseason), by far the most in the NFL. It’s rare for a player to reach even 400 touches. That’s happened only 42 other times in league history.
Because of their consistency and dependability, such players often earn the “workhorse” label. But that description isn’t enough. They’re also cautionary tales.
Let’s review what happened after those 400-touch seasons.
• In almost every case, the running back was not as productive the next season. Thirty-seven running backs touched the ball less often the next season. Thirty-four gained fewer yards from scrimmage.
• You’d expect some degree of decline based purely on circumstances beyond a player’s control. Maybe he faces stronger defenses. Maybe opposing coaches install game plans that emphasize stopping the run. Maybe the offense loses a key lineman to injury or free agency.
In the majority of cases, however, the decline wasn’t gradual. It was sudden and steep. Twenty-five running backs saw at least a 25 percent drop in yards from scrimmage the next season. Several players never even came close to reaching the same levels of production. Among them: Jamal Anderson, Larry Johnson, DeMarco Murray, Barry Foster, Jamal Lewis, Marcus Allen, Stephen Jackson, Deuce McAllister, Eddie George, Ahman Green and Herschel Walker.
Players who touched the ball 400 times in a season, since 2000:
• While it might seem as if Bell is still in his prime, consider that only four players tallied 400 touches after turning 27. They are: Walter Payton (30), Eric Dickerson (28), Curtis Martin (31) and Tiki Barber (30).
• This isn’t to say Bell can’t repeat his 2017 performance. The multiple 400-touch club, however, is an exclusive one. Dickerson and Emmitt Smith did it four times. Martin, Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson did it three times. Payton, James Wilder, Terrell Davis and Ricky Williams did it twice.
Bell himself has shown how difficult it is for running backs to succeed after a season of heavy usage. In 2014, he touched the ball 373 times and gained 2,215 yards from scrimmage. In 2015, a knee injury ended his season after six games.
We started by asking whether the Bucs should sign Bell if he becomes available. After examining the history of high-volume running backs, the better question is whether Bell is worth ten of millions more dollars than alternatives.
For example, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead (both are 27) could be had at a fraction of the price. From a volume standpoint, Bell is in a tier by himself. But from an efficiency standpoint, Lewis and Burkhead are comparable.
Lewis, in particular, matches up well and has proven to be just as elusive. Bell averaged 2.6 yards after contact per attempt last season; Lewis averaged 3.2. Bell forced 44 missed tackles on runs; Lewis forced 42. Bell had 14 runs of 15 or more yards; Lewis had 11. As a receiver, Bell gained 1.3 yards per route run; Lewis gained 1.4.
There’s no question the Bucs need difference makers. They also need depth just about everywhere, and especially at offensive line, defensive line and defensive back. Now, while Jameis Winston is still on his rookie deal, is the time to add reinforcements throughout the roster.
While the Bucs have the cap space to afford Bell, they should be hesitant to pay a premium for him. We might have just witnessed his peak.
Statistics in this report are from Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.