Detroit Lions must sign Le'Veon Bell if they're serious about run game
OK, Detroit Lions. You want to have a great run game? You want a more balanced offense? You want a great playmaker?
You want to be the Seattle Seahawks? Here’s your chance.
Go sign Le’Veon Bell.
I don’t care what it costs. Make it happen.
The Pittsburgh Steelers announced Wednesday they won’t use the franchise or transitional tags on their All-Pro running back. That means the former Michigan State football star, who sat out all of last season over a contract dispute, will be an unrestricted free agent. When NFL free agency opens at 4 p.m. March 13, the Lions should have a deal done by 4:01 p.m.
The Lions have done and said everything to indicate they want to mimic the Seahawks’ offense.
You want a power run game? Go sign Bell.
You want your Beast Mode? Go sign Bell.
You want to control the clock? Go sign Bell.
You want the best hybrid running back-receiver in the NFL? Go sign Bell.
I’m not in love with the Lions’ direction on offense. They’re taking a step back with their more balanced, run-first, ball-control offense while the rest of the NFL is sprinting ahead with exotic schemes, dynamic quarterbacks and high-flying aerial attacks.
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But if there was any question the Lions are committed to copying the Seahawks’ offensive success, they gave a resounding affirmation when they hired former Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
As Free Press reporter Dave Birkett recently pointed out, it was analyst and Lions legend Chris Spielman — who still has plenty of deep ties to the team — who said “they want to be Seattle with the mindset. … I think that’s the formula that they want. I’m not saying 57 percent (running plays), but I do think that’s kind of what they’re building.”
The Lions did the right thing by drafting Kerryon Johnson last year. He had a good season, rushing for more than 100 yards in a game twice and averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
But he didn’t get much help in the backfield from LeGarrette Blount. Johnson only played 10 games and I’m not sure he can hold up to the pounding of being an every-down back for an entire season.
And really, he shouldn’t have to. I think the Lions would get a lot more out of Johnson if he were to back up Bell and share the carries. In 2017, James Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry as Bell’s backup. Just imagine what a backfield of Bell and Johnson would look like. It would be one of the Lions’ biggest strengths, if not their identity on offense.
Sure, the Lions could take a chance and try to draft another running back. Maybe it would work. But why take a chance? If you want to be a great running team, don’t cheap out and hope it works out. Go for the sure thing and sign Bell, an elite player who just turned 27 and is in the prime of his career.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn spoke after the season about the improved run game and the team’s commitment to it. “We didn’t have as much passing success, but we had much more running success,” he said. “I think that’s something that we want to build this team around because I think that lasts over the long haul.”
That philosophy is debatable, especially if you look at the trend for running back contracts. Many teams are loath to pay running backs the exorbitant money they now shower upon quarterbacks, receivers, left tackles and edge rushers. But that doesn’t mean the NFL’s philosophy necessarily has to be the Lions’ philosophy.
The Lions should be willing to buck the trend to get the player they need.
So how much does Bell want? He sat out last season after he refused to sign the Steelers’ franchise tag of $14.5 million. NFL.com reported in November that Bell wanted a deal that averaged more than $17 million, for about $85 million over five years with more than $45 million guaranteed.
To which I say: Pay it, Lions.
The Lions have plenty of salary cap space to pay Bell. According to Spotrac.com, they have about $38 million in cap space for 2019 — which ranks 14th in the NFL — and that’s before a decision has been made on T.J. Lang’s contract.
Bell also provides great value because of his versatility. He has great hands, averaging 81 catches in this last three full seasons. That would have made him the Lions’ top receiver last year. Bell also averages 8.5 yards per catch to Theo Riddick’s 7.9-yard average.
Since the Lions traded away Golden Tate in October, they’re in need of another pass-catcher. And since Riddick, who turns 28 in May, is in the last year of his deal, Bell could provide plenty of insurance as a pass-catching running back and could make Riddick a valuable trade commodity.
I’m sure plenty of people will have a problem with Bell sitting out the season and “abandoning” his team and his teammates because he thought $14.5 million wasn’t enough. Sorry, but I agree with Bell.
Unlike Steelers teammate Antonio Brown’s unprofessional, immature and disruptive antics that have led to his pending departure, Bell is leaving Pittsburgh because he made a conscientious objection to the NFL’s draconian contract rules. His decision was based on professional pride and contractual freedom after the Steelers used the franchise tag on him for a second straight year in 2018. NFL teams still have too much power in regard to controlling salaries because of the players’ relatively weak union.
“I'm playing for strictly my value to the team,” Bell told ESPN in March. “That's what I'm asking. I don't think I should settle for anything less than what I'm valued at.”
He shouldn’t. It’s a lot of money that will require a big commitment from the team that signs him. But if the Lions want to show a true commitment to a better run game and a more balanced offense, to adding playmakers, to winning, Bell gives them their best chance.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.