Le'Veon Bell vs. Saquon Barkley: Who Will Have the Better Career?

Jason Keidel
May 21, 2020 - 12:40 pm

Before he became a brand - a rapping, jet-skiing mercenary - Le'Veon Bell was a great, great running back. Indeed, he was the best in pro football, a yard-munching machine and the darling of fantasy football pundits. He could gut a defense with his unique stutter-step running style, floating across the line until he found a hole, or he could carve it up by catching passes in the flat.

Since things went so south so fast in Pittsburgh, we forget that Bell reached 8,000 total yards faster than anyone in NFL history, breaking the record set by the first face on the Mt. Rushmore of running backs, Jim Brown.

While Bell didn't have the public and prolific meltdown like teammate Antonio Brown, he managed to turn a Canton-bound career into a line plunge into mediocrity. It started when he stiff-armed the Steelers' $14.5 million franchise tender in 2018. Bell missed a year of his absolute prime and then left the wall of Pro Bowl blockers he had in Pittsburgh for the money and leaky line of the New York Jets.

Consider his last season in Pittsburgh, Bell led the league in rushes (321), touches (406), and notched 1,946 total yards, qualified for the Pro Bowl and made first-team All-Pro, In his first season with the Jets, Bell had career lows in rushing yards and receiving yards for a season in which he played at least 12 games. He averaged a paltry 3.2 yards per rush, lowest of his NFL career. Bell is still just 28, but it feels like he's 32, and that he doesn't have any more of those magical years under his pads. His career italicized the fact that the best way to get your best players is through the draft. You earn their loyalty, own their best years, and can school them in your club's culture. Exactly the way the Steelers did it with Le'Veon Bell, before he was blinded by money. 

And much the way the Giants have done things with Saquon Barkley. They drafted him second overall, fed him the ball like so many dots on a Pac Man board, and have made Barkley the featured player on their offense. Barkley has been wildly productive and wholly humble, handling himself on and off the field like a true franchise player. The Bronx native has lived the NFL life like he was born for it. He has otherworldly talent, a hard-hat work ethic, and the modest sensibilities that make a great player the object of fans' affections.

So who will have a better NFL career?

Barkley hasn't been in the league long enough - he's entering his third year - to match Bell's prodigious career stats. But if you had to say which halfback would have a better career, the answer isn't nearly as easy as it would have been two years ago. In fact, it's not foolish to say that Saquon Barkley will end his NFL career with more yards than Le'Veon Bell, and will end his career in Canton, a place that now seems so distant for Bell.

Barkley flowered in his first NFL season, becoming just the third running back to gain 2,000 total yards as a rookie. Though nagged by a high ankle sprain, Barkley still nudged past a thousand rushing yards, averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and totaled 1,441 yards for the 2019 season. With Daniel Jones entering his second season and the Giants spending the fourth overall draft pick on Georgia tackle Andrew Thomas, Big Blue's offense should be the most potent of Barkley's brief career.

Even if you consider Barkley's truncated sophomore season, he's on pace to amass 10,407 total yards in six seasons, well more than Bell's 9,246 combined yards through exactly six seasons. And considering how high the G-Men drafted Barkley, they will have him for at least five seasons before his rookie deal expires. Barkley would not become an unrestricted free agent until 2023, when he will be just 26 years old. Also, Barkley proved he can be great on a lousy team, winning NFL Rookie of the Year when the Giants went 5-11 two years ago. Bell had never been on a losing club until his first year with the Jets.

So while Le'Veon Bell has 5.777 more total yards than Saquon Barkley, it just feels like the latter is loaded with more pure talent and has enough old-school wisdom to keep this Giants thing going based on wins, yards, and common sense, and then on dollars and cents.

Le'Veon Bell has every right to pull as much money as he can through the closing window of his NFL career. But some players seem to place a premium on winning as much, if not more, than money. Saquon Barkley is such a player. It will serve him well professionally and financially. By the time Bell left Pittsburgh the fans were done with him.

It's hard to think of Big Blue fans eager to shove Barkley out the door. Which is why Barkley, if healthy, will have a better career than Bell.

Twitter: @JasonKeidel