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Why the 49ers should avoid Le’Veon Bell

Al Sacco
Jan 24, 2018 at 7:46 AM1


With NFL free agency around the corner, it's easy to get caught up in some of the star players that could be on the market. One of the big names that jumps out immediately is Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell. Obviously, Bell is a tremendous talent that can make an immediate impact on any offense in the short-term, but that doesn't mean he's a fit for every roster. In a lot of ways, Bell is a very risky investment that can do more harm than good in the long run. So, while a team like the San Francisco 49ers may have the cap room to make a run at Bell should he become available, that doesn't mean they should. Let me explain.

For the most part, it's not wise to commit a significant portion of your cap to a running back, unless that player is essential to what you do. For example, the Dallas Cowboys have centered their offense around Ezekiel Elliot, and have every intention of giving him the ball as much as possible week in and week out. For that reason, it would make sense to pay him, even though the shelf life of the position tends to be on the shorter side. But if you're not a team that wants to hand off to the same back 20-plus times a game, what's the point?

Ball carriers are really a dime a dozen these days, and the importance of having a feature back has diminished now that more offenses are using a time-share approach. Even for the teams that may want to lean more on one runner, impact backs can be found throughout the draft, as we saw this year with day-two picks like Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara paying immediate dividends for the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints respectively.

As for Bell himself, there's no doubt that he's one of the best players in the league at his position. Still, despite his talents, there's more to look at when considering a commitment to him. More than anything, the years and dollars he'll likely command will be astronomical.

When thinking about the type of contract Bell would want, you have to take a look at the extension Davonta Freeman received from the Atlanta Falcons. Freeman, who like Bell will be 26-years old when the 2018 season begins, signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension with $22 million guaranteed. Bell will absolutely get more than that, so you're looking at a deal for a running back on the wrong side of his twenties that could fetch $10-plus million per year with over $25 million guaranteed. Even if the deal has an out after three years, that's still a significant portion of a team's salary cap for the foreseeable future.

Let's put the money aside for now though, and look at what you might be getting with Bell. For starters, as mentioned above, Bell will be 26 next year and, unless you're Frank Gore, production tends to slide for runners in their late twenties. Bell is coming off a season in which he touched the ball 431 times (337 carries, 94 receptions) including the playoffs. That type of usage has been a theme for Bell, as he averaged 27 touches a game in 2016, and 23 in 2014. While he only played six games during the 2015 season, his workload was still significant at 23 touches per contest. Has that workload taken its toll? Well, in 2017, Bell had to lowest yards per carry of his career at 4.0, and only managed three runs over 20 yards.

Another factor you have to consider when it comes to Bell is his attitude. He was suspended two games in 2015 and three games in 2016 for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He also skipped nearly all of the Steeler's final walkthrough of the season, and showed up much later than head coach Mike Tomlin requested prior to the team's Divisional Round playoff game. These instances are major red flags and should give any team pause when considering an offer to Bell.

Want something else to give you pause? In the 14 games DeAngelo Williams started in place of Bell from 2015-2016, he gained 1,126 yards on 267 carries (4.2 ypc), caught 52 balls and scored 15 total touchdowns. That tells you system has a lot to do with the production, and while Bell is better than Williams was, is he $10 million per year better?

As for the 49ers, it seems like head coach Kyle Shanahan likes the idea of sharing carries, and that's evident in the numbers. In the five games Jimmy Garoppolo started for San Francisco, Shanahan used two backs more than at any other point during the season, as Carlos Hyde averaged 16 carries a game, and Matt Breida chipped in with 10 per contest. Also, Shanahan's offense is centered around the pass, and while the Niners should still bring in a veteran to help mentor Breida and possibly Joe Williams, they can re-sign Hyde or bring in another experienced back at a fraction of what Bell would cost.

As for all the cap room the 49ers have? Well, obviously, the main objective this offseason will be to re-sign Garoppolo to a long-term deal, but after that, the smart play would be to spend on a pass rusher, cornerback or an impact offensive lineman.

Al Sacco is the Senior Writer for 49ers Webzone and has had his work used by national outlets such as ESPN and USA TODAY. In addition to his writing duties, Al is also the co-host of the No Huddle podcast. If you'd like to reach Al with a media request, please contact him via Twitter @AlSacco49 or at [email protected].
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


1 Comment

  • HGM
    I don't think Niners would look for a top RB unless they agree to have a reduced paycheck. Niners priorities are extending Garoppolo, upgrade the OL with talent on inside and backups, edge rushers,corners RZ scoring receiver then running back. Dion Lewis would be cheaper choice than Bell but draft also have good players like Rashad Penny, Akrum Wadley, Sony Michel, Mark Walton,etc.
    Jan 24, 2018 at 8:30 AM
    0

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