Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell

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Lichtenstein: Jets Should Bypass Paying Heavy Toll For Bell

Steve Lichtenstein
November 19, 2018 - 1:08 pm
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Assuming general manager Mike Maccagnan survives this season—and that’s no given with the Jets stumbling out of their bye week at 3-7—he’ll surely be under pressure to show results in 2019.

No more mulligans for Maccagnan, who has yet to put together a playoff team in his four seasons on the job.

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But now the franchise quarterback is in place and the team will likely enter this offseason with a very high draft pick and over $100 million in salary cap space.

For the Jets next season, it’s either move up or move on from Maccagnan.

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With that kind of pressure, if not an outright mandate, on Maccagnan, it’s no wonder many experts predict the Jets to be big bidders for the biggest name on the free agent market—running back Le’Veon Bell.  In fact, Bovada's oddsmakers have the Jets with the highest probability to land Bell at plus-285.

That would be a very costly and unnecessary bet for the Jets.

Yes, Bell was until recently the Steelers’ bell cow before deciding to sit out this entire season instead of signing his franchise tag tender. He was second in the NFL in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage in 2017, while his 85 receptions placed 10th.  It’s rare to find a first-team All-Pro at his age (27 in February) in free agency. As ESPN’s Rich Cimini put it, you typically purchase hamburger quality at filet mignon prices.

However, how much of Bell's success was simply the product of his environment? He played with future Hall of Famers at quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) and wide receiver (Antonio Brown), and behind a top-ten line, as graded by ProFootballFocus.com.

The Jets only have to look to a different corner of MetLife Stadium to see what happens when talented skill position players have to deal with substandard blocking. Get Eli Manning, Saquon Barkley, and Odell Beckham Jr. a professional offensive line and I'm sure you'd notice a different level of production from the Giants on game days.

Gang Green's line is currently ranked 24th in the league by the site, and I'm sure it would be much worse if not for their outlier performance versus Denver on October 7, when the Jets amassed 323 yards on the ground.  If not for that one game, the Jets would rank last in yards per carry (3.37) instead of 21st and 30th in rushing yards per game (83.3) instead of 19th going into their bye.  Their 32 negative rush plays are the league’s fourth-most, per NFL.com.

And how have the Steelers fared without Bell, you ask?  James Conner, their second-year next man up, entered Sunday as the league’s third-leading rusher, with 771 yards at a more-than-decent 4.7 yards per carry.  He also had 39 receptions out of the backfield to push into second-place in total yards from scrimmage.

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This isn’t to suggest that Conner is a superior player than Bell, or even close to being one, but merely a reminder of how the running back position is valued in the modern NFL. The Steelers have barely missed a beat because the evolution of the game has made it more reliant on the forward pass every year.  Three of the last four Super Bowl champs didn’t even have a 1,000-yard rusher. 

As such, the only running back, now that Bell is off Pittsburgh’s books, playing on a contract with an average yearly salary in eight figures is the Rams Todd Gurley, per outsidethecap.com. (Cardinals back David Johnson will be added to this short list when his extension kicks in next season).   

Bell reportedly rejected a five-year deal from Pittsburgh that would have averaged between $14-$15 million per year with about $33 million paid in the first two years, though only $20 million was guaranteed. The same reports indicated he was looking to earn around $17 million per year with more money guaranteed, like Brown.  Figure it would cost the Jets several million more than that per year, with a larger swath of guaranteed cash up front, to get Bell’s attention.

The Jets may have the wherewithal to make Bell the best offer, but those resources should be used for help at more premium positions, like the offensive line, edge pass rusher, and, because Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine are on expiring deals, shutdown cornerbacks. 

Here are just some of the names for whom I believe the Jets should break the proverbial bank, assuming they don’t re-sign or get tagged by their incumbent clubs and remain available in the new league year:  Center Matt Paradis (the Jets can cut Spencer Long without any dead money cap hit), defensive end Brandon Graham (if Todd Bowles is fired after the season as expected, the new coach can fit the scheme around this elite lineman), and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan. 

I’m sure they’ll also have to overpay for upgrades at offensive tackle, guard, outside linebacker, and wide receiver, where they’re particularly thin this season and will only have special teamer Charone Peake under contract in 2019 (Robby Anderson will be a restricted free agent).          

If the Jets truly want to improve their running back depth with hard runners in lieu of Mr. Butt Wipe Isaiah Crowell, there are options that will be significantly less expensive than Bell, including Jay Ajayi and Mark Ingram. 

There’s no need for the Jets to pay a heavy toll for Bell when they have so many pressing needs at positions the game has deemed more valuable.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.