Le’Veon Bell has been in the news of late. His contract situation is one of the most interesting in recent memory. He will play under the franchise tag in 2017, which makes his salary close to double what the second running back in the NFL, LeSean McCoy, is making per year. Pittsburgh very well then might give Bell a raise after the season by franchising him again, which is an absurd amount of money to guarantee a running back over two years.
But Bell wants even more. He looks at it like this: If you are going to pay my fantastic teammate, Antonio Brown, the going rate for being an elite NFL wide receiver, aren’t I every bit as valuable as Brown to this team?
And you know what? Bell is right. He should be paid as an elite non-quarterback offensive player rather than judging him against his running back peers from a financial standpoint. When the Steelers went on their outstanding winning streak last year, it was on the back of Bell. Much as the late career John Elway to Terrelle Davis transition transpired, Pittsburgh’s offense now goes through Bell rather than Ben Roethlisberger. It is the correct decision for the Steelers and as you all know, such a strategy creates insane fantasy production for Bell.
In the history of the NFL, 135 players have accumulated at least 4,000 yards from scrimmage in their first four years in the league, including Bell. 134 of them fall short of Bell’s 128.7 yards per game pace. Think about that for a minute.
Bell is truly remarkable with a unique style. Like transcendent musicians or artists, great running backs have a remarkable style that is all their own. Eric Clapton plays three notes and you know it is Clapton. Bell, like Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, or Earl Campbell, is the same way.
But what would happen to the fantasy community if Bell were to fall to injury? That is a “What If” that Steelers fans dread and unfortunately, has seen too often over the past several seasons, including last year’s AFC Championship game.
With all respect to Bell, the sky would not fall for Pittsburgh’s offense. Yes, he is irreplaceable, but the Steelers are loaded on this side of the ball and would have options.
The first obvious player to monitor is James Connor. Connor didn’t participate in mini camp, but was drafted in the third round to be Bell’s backup as well as help a great deal on special teams. At this point, we should assume that Connor is very much Bell’s direct handcuff and therefore, if Bell doesn’t dress any given week, Connor’s fantasy owners absolutely must run to their closest electronic device and put the checkmark next to Connor’s name to get him in your lineup. Connor very well could be a low end RB1 in Pittsburgh’s offense. That is, unless Pittsburgh were to murky up the waters by resigning DeAngelo Williams.
With all respect to Dallas, the Steelers now have the NFL’s best offensive line. Not only are their starters exceptional and extremely well coached by Mike Munchak, but also this is a team that, unlike almost all of the other 31 teams, has depth. Pittsburgh’s line goes eight deep with players able to see the field and they don’t hesitate to play with six linemen at times.
The weakest position in Pittsburgh’s offense clearly is tight end. Therefore, expect even more six offensive line personnel groupings in 2017 and fewer snaps with multiple tight ends. The other way to make up for below average tight end play is by employing more wide receivers on the field.
The Steelers probably will do this with a healthy Bell. Imagine Bell, Brown, Martavis Bryant, and two of these three Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates or JuJu Smith-Schuster as Pittsburgh’s skill position players with Roethlisberger in the shotgun directing traffic presnap. Or how about six offensive linemen, Bell, Brown, Bryant and just one of Rogers, Coates or Smith-Schuster? These are frightening thoughts.
After selected Smith-Schuster in the second round, Pittsburgh currently has more receivers than they know what to do with. Don’t forget, and this might be a long shot, but the Steelers also signed Justin Hunter this offseason and how often has this organization signed a free agent from another team and that player didn’t make the final roster? It is pretty rare.
Three and four wide receiver sets should become more prominent in Pittsburgh this year and we should expect fewer tight ends on the field. If Bell were to go down, this might even be exacerbated. While this offense went more into Bell’s hands than Roethlisberger’s during the second half of 2016 and into the playoffs, by no means is Roethlisberger incapable of distributing the ball behind a great offensive line to the wealth of receivers Pittsburgh has given him.
Bell is a special player. He is a transcendent player. If he were to go down, you obviously plug in Connor. But the fantasy stock of the Steelers wide receivers also should spike.
To say the coaching staff took the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands last year and put it in Bell’s is a bit extreme, but if Bell were out, Roethlisberger would certainly orchestrate the offense. And Pittsburgh would throw a ton!
Conner could be an ADD rather than a BUY and very well could already be in your league on the Bell owner’s team as a premium handcuff. Even so, maybe you can pry Connor away because that owner hasn’t seen enough of Connor to yet trust him as an every week starter with Bell out of action. Connor could be a league winner if Bell goes down.
Brown sure won’t come cheap, but you would have to think that more than ever, he becomes the focal point of Pittsburgh’s offense if Bell isn’t in the mix. However, without as much of a threat from the ground game, would Brown see even more coverage attention like he did in the AFC Championship game once Bell went down? Probably, but Roethlisberger won’t be shy going his way nonetheless.
Trading for Bryant might be the shrewder move than going after Brown. Bryant is actually the more talented of the two and should be in store for a monstrous season with or without Bell. With his talent, getting a bigger slice of Pittsburgh’s pie could pay off huge for Bryant.
James isn’t a draftable tight end for fantasy and wouldn’t be worth picking up if Bell were to go down. But James could get more red zone looks without Bell in the equation.
Davis is big and fast. He has done some good things in the league and should at least make the Steelers team as their kickoff returner. As of right now, he is competing with Connor to be Bell’s backup, a job most of us think Davis will lose. However, without Bell, you could easily see a time-share between Connor or Davis in an outstanding offense. And who knows, Davis could outplay the rookie.
Sammie Coates, Justin Hunter, and JuJu Smith-Schuster could be worth adding as well, but the problem there is we just don’t know the pecking order between those three in early August. Rogers role in the slot is much more defined right now, although Smith-Schuster could still give him a run for his money. Again, Pittsburgh should very much become a passing team without Bell and that is more action for Rogers.