Nineteen running backs have totaled 500 carries in the last three seasons, and Bell’s 4.8-yard carry average is .15 yards better than the next-best guys, LeSean McCoy and Mark Ingram. His 182 catches are the most among all running backs, and so are his 1,606 yards. He averages 7.1 yards per receiving target, making him a more efficient receiver than a whole lot of actual wide receivers. He’s close to a perfect player.
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Bell is the best running back in the world, but his contractual future is very much in doubt. Even if the Steelers keep him, running backs don’t usually stay on top for long. Bell’s had a series of injuries in his first four pro seasons, including a groin ailment that required surgery this offseason. He’s an irreplaceable talent, but the odds that he’s both at the height of his powers and a Steeler in one year do not seem great.
We could run down the Steelers’ other running back options to evaluate what might happen if Bell declined or left town, but there’s no point. Losing this version of Le’Veon Bell would make any offense in the league miles less potent.
So now it’s on Bell to demonstrate his worth as a rusher and a receiver this season. However, $15 million, or more, per year still feels like a stretch.
Bell carries some risk. He’s missed 14 regular season games over the past two years due to a combination of injuries and suspensions.
He’ll be 26 next spring, and his next contract should carry him through his 30th birthday, the age when running backs historically start to slow down.
There’s precedent working against Bell, too. The New Orleans Saints applied the franchise tag to tight end Jimmy Graham in 2014. Graham pushed to be categorized as a wide receiver instead of a tight end. The difference in the tag amount was over $5 million.
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