By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to The Point of Pittsburgh
I have one word for you all: unreliable.
Just when it seemed like the news around Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was beginning to calm down, his career took another blow after it was reported early Friday morning that he would be facing a 4 game suspension from the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy by missing scheduled drug tests. As many of you know, this is far from the first time that Bell has been in the news for drama surrounding him, both on and off the field.
- In the second preseason game of his rookie year, Bell suffered a mid-foot sprain, which would sideline him for the first three games of the regular season.
- In August, Bell was arrested with then-teammate LeGarrette Blount on DUI and marijuana possession charges. Bell was sentenced to 15 months probation, a 60-day suspension of his driver’s licensed, mandatory DUI education classes, and a total of $2,400 in court costs.
- Against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 29, Bell hyperextended his knee during a tackle by safety Reggie Nelson, sidelining him for the remainder of the season and the beginning of the offseason.
- Due to the circumstances surrounding the DUI and possession charges, Bell was issued a 4-game suspension to start the 2015 season. However, this suspension was reduced to 3 games on April 9 and after Bell’s appeal, it was reduced to just 2 games.
- On November 1, Bell suffered a torn MCL against the Bengals after taking a hit from linebacker Vontaze Burfict, ending Bell’s season.
- In July, Bell released a rap song titled “Focus”, a song in which he states that “I’m at the top and if not I’m the closest, I’ma need 15 a year and they know this …”
- On July 22, the NFL reported that Bell would be facing a 4-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy for missing multiple scheduled drug tests.
There is no denying that Bell, when on the field, is arguably the best running back in the NFL. Heading into a contract year, Bell was on pace to earn a solid payday from an NFL team, whether that was with the Steelers or with another team. Bell’s circumstances were cloudy to begin with due to his back-to-back knee injuries in two consecutive seasons, but now he will also likely be facing another suspension in back-to-back seasons after sitting out the first two games of the 2015 season for the aforementioned reasons.
That type of drama isn’t exactly worth $15 million per year.
While Bell will still get the opportunity to play at some point this season, this unfortunate situation puts a real kink in the impending contract offer that GM Kevin Colbert is going to offer Bell to remain in Pittsburgh. To date, Bell has missed 13 regular-season games and additional three postseason games in his young career. With running backs already having a short shelf-life in the NFL, Bell’s injury history should not instill confidence into anyone at this point. But injuries are hard to predict in the NFL. And Bell’s issue right now is not his injury history, which has been largely out of his control so far. What IS the issue right now are the things that are very much in Bell’s control.
If Bell’s suspension is upheld (which it likely will be), another violation will lead to a 10-game suspension or potentially a season-long suspension, much like what happened with receiver Martavis Bryant, who also was suspended this season for missing multiple schedule drug tests.
The Steelers have a crucial decision ahead of them regarding their troubled star running back. The Steelers have an extremely dangerous offense with or without Bell, but the addition of Bell makes the Steelers a much better and dynamic offense. The Steelers made a smart move by signing veteran DeAngelo Williams last offseason and he proved last year that he still has plenty left in the tank while the team leaned on him during the absence of Bell. At the end of the day, though, Williams is 33 and is on the backside of his career. With Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint as the two backs on the roster from last season, the Steelers will have a much weaker (but still effective) run game.
The sad thing is that it shouldn’t be like this. When healthy and not in trouble, the Steelers have the potential to be one of the greatest offenses the NFL has ever seen (look out, Greatest Show on Turf). Unfortunately, the Steelers have yet to really see the endless potential this offense has due to injuries and suspensions that keep their key players off the field for extended periods of time. With Ben Roethlisberger’s career window slowly closing, the Steelers can’t afford to have players missing ample amounts of time for any reasons, especially players that are worth large amounts of money.
With future free agents like Antonio Brown and David DeCastro, Bell is unfortunately making himself more and more expendable. Bell is one of the most dynamic and exciting backs in the league but not at the cost and stress that he continues to cause for the Steelers. The 2017 running back draft class is extraordinarily strong, with names like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb, Wayne Gallman, Royce Freeman, Jalen Hurd, and James Conner all likely coming out and being high-end draft picks come the spring. If there was a time for Bell to have a contract year, this definitely would be the season. After not selecting a running back this year, there is a strong possibility the team will look to draft one of the names above, regardless if they re-sign Bell and/or Williams (who is also a free agent at the end of the season). They clearly need the insurance and a more reliable back that can manage to stay on the field and out of trouble. In a perfect world, Bell will straighten out his life and prove to the Steelers that he can be trusted to invest a solid contract with for a long-term deal. This contract would be in the ballpark of $7-$9 million dollars per season (which is honestly what Bell will receive from whatever team signs him, unless a GM is willing to throw the $15 million per season Bell desires at him).
I personally believe that the Steelers will find a way to keep Bell for the 2017 season (and potentially beyond), whether that be with a franchise tag or with a team-friendly long-term contract because I don’t see them breaking the bank on a player that already has 2 strikes against his name. Much of that decision will now come down to how much the Steelers can trust their star back. Bell is quickly shortening his leash with the team and needs to figure out what he wants out of the future before any team (the Steelers or otherwise) are willing to pull the trigger on a disaster waiting to happen. Any contract worth more than $5 million per season is a large investment and a team like the Steelers will not put that money into a player that they can’t trust off the field. There is no doubt that Bell’s relationship with the Steelers is becoming more and more strained, and the events on Friday morning do nothing to help that.
We could all be wrong and this could be the last time Bell sees any negative media spotlight or injury issues throughout his entire career.
I’m not holding my breath.