Column: Make Le’Veon Bell the NFL’s highest-paid running back

By Ron Cook - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It’s one thing to make Antonio Brown the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver by far. It’s something much better to make Le’Veon Bell the league’s highest-paid running back by far.

That’s no knock of Brown. It’s just hard to justify paying big money — $68 million over four years in Brown’s case — to a receiver who touches the ball six, seven, eight times a game. It’s a lot easier giving the big money — $12.12 million for this season in Bell’s case — to a running back who touches it 28, 29, 30 times a game. It’s especially easy to pay Bell because he’s also terrific as a receiver.

I know Bell’s history of immature off-field behavior. He was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 season and the first three games last season because of marijuana issues. But I don’t think he’s a bad kid. I believe him when he says his days of being “a knucklehead” are over.

I’m also aware of Bell’s injury history. He missed the playoff game against Baltimore in 2014 and the final eight regular-season games and the playoff games against Cincinnati and Denver in 2015 because of knee injuries. He also had to leave early in the AFC championship against New England last season because of a groin problem.

But Bell is no more susceptible to injury than any player, certainly no more than any other running back. You might have heard NFL football is a brutal game. “I think the media and the outside world look at this sport and think guys should never get hurt,” teammate Maurkice Pouncey said last season. “They look at it like it’s basketball or something. This is a gladiator sport.”

Bell’s knee injuries were flukes. Steelers coaches have to take some responsibility for his groin injury. They ran the wheels off him last season, although it’s hard to blame them because he meant so much to their offense.

He set the franchise regular-season rushing record against Buffalo Dec. 11 with 236 yards and had two huge playoff games, setting the franchise postseason rushing record with 167 yards against Miami and topping it the next week with 170 yards against Kansas City. But Bell said he first injured his groin in the Miami game. The coaches kept sending him out, and he kept playing. He finally ran out of gas after just six carries in the AFC championship after averaging 27.5 carries in the previous eight games.

“I guess looking back on it, I would have done things a little different, maybe come out when I was hurting,” Bell said after the season. “I always want to win, always want to be in the game, take every snap. That’s what it was.”

Bell had groin surgery in March but should be full-go at training camp. Overuse shouldn’t be a problem this season with James Conner and Knile Davis as his backups.

There has been at least some speculation that Bell is unhappy because he hasn’t been able to do a long-term contract with the Steelers. He didn’t participate in any of their offseason workouts — his absence was a talking point among coaches and teammates — after management put that $12.12 million franchise tag on him. If he doesn’t reach a long-term agreement with the team by Monday, he must play in 2017 for the $12.12 million and could become a free agent after the season, although the Steelers could put the franchise tag on him again for 2018. The NFL’s next highest-paid running back — Buffalo’sLeSean McCoy — is due to make $8.01 million this season.

I know, it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for Bell.

But no player likes the franchise tag. All players prefer a multiyear deal because it means more guaranteed money and more security. But even if Bell isn’t happy and can’t work out that long-term contract, he’s too smart to let it impact his performance. He is too much of a competitor for that to happen.

The hope here is Bell and the Steelers get a deal done. That would give the team at least three more seasons with their Big Three — Bell, Brown and Ben Roethlisberger — as long as Roethlisberger plays out his contract. I don’t think it’s that hard to imagine a Super Bowl win during that time.

That would make Bell worth every penny.



Ron Cook is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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By Ron Cook

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette