Dougherty: Pursuit of Le'Veon Bell suddenly makes sense for Packers

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell. Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Three months ago, the idea that the Green Bay Packers might trade for Le’Veon Bell was a non-starter.

Not enough bang for the buck for a team that already had Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones.

But now, the possibility of pursuing Bell in free agency has to be on the table for general manager Brian Gutekunst. For a couple of reasons.

First, Jones has sprained an MCL three times in the last 13 months. He’s a good running back, but that’s a big red flag. The Packers can’t count on him to stay healthy.

Second, we’ve seen this season Rodgers needs the help, and Bell, who turns 27 in February, is one of the three or four best running backs in the league. His extra value is as a receiver. Rodgers has been loath to check the ball down, but Bell is an option he’d be eager to utilize.

Yes, it’s still early to talk about free-agent targets because the landscape will change plenty between now and the start of the open market in March. Also, among his other considerations, Gutekunst needs immediate help on defense (pass rushers and safety) and the offensive line (guard, right tackle), and he’ll want to do some of that in free agency.

If Gutekunst cuts Nick Perry, Jimmy Graham and Bryan Bulaga, he’ll have about $55 million in salary-cap room going into next year, according to Over The Cap. That’s a lot, but Bell would take a big bite out of it at the expense of another position or three.

The big question is whether the Packers can find a free agent who can make anywhere near Bell’s impact. If they can’t, they should make a hard run at him.

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Best case for the Packers would be finding a good pass rusher in free agency. The problem is, there very well might not be anyone available worth the money.

Houston's Jadeveon Clowney (17½ sacks in 2017 and ’18 combined) and Dallas' Demarcus Lawrence (24 sacks in ’17 and ’18) are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. But does anyone really think they won’t either sign extensions or get franchised?

Same for Kansas City’s Dee Ford (11½ sacks this season), and probably Seattle’s Frank Clark (31 sacks since ’16) as well.

Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah played this season on the franchise tag but has age (30 next season) and injury red flags. Ankle, back and shoulder injuries have dogged him the last two years, and his sacks dropped from 12 last year to four in seven games this season.

Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham already is on the wrong side of 30 (turns 31 in April) and has seen his sacks dip from 9½ last year to four this season.

Trey Flowers is young (26 next season), and it’s not a given New England will re-sign him. But his 13 sacks the last two seasons don’t leap off the page, and he’s more of an inside rusher than outside.

The only safety worth a big-money contract is the New York Giants’ Landon Collins. He was just voted to his third straight Pro Bowl. But ESPN has reported that the Giants will franchise him if they don’t sign him to an extension.

On the offensive line, I’m betting Gutekunst will bargain shop for help at guard and right tackle, rather than spend big. He also could take a lineman with one of his four picks in the top three rounds of the draft.

In other words, Bell might be the free agent who far and away could make the biggest impact on the Packers. And he will be available, even if the Pittsburgh Steelers put the transition tag on him hoping to make a trade.

The question then is, at what price?

Bell has plenty of miles on him – his 1,229 touches from 2013-17 ranked second in the league over that time, behind LeSean McCoy – but added none this season while sitting out after refusing to sign the Steelers’ franchise tender ($14.544 million).

He’s a difference maker – he was named first-team All-Pro twice in his five seasons in the league and was the first NFL player to put up 4,000 yards rushing and 2,000 yards receiving in his first 50 games.

But he has a reputation for not being a team guy. It’s telling that several Steelers offensive linemen (Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro) had no qualms going public with their heavy criticisms when Bell chose to sit out the season.

There are also questions about Bell’s maturity. He has twice been suspended under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy – he was busted for marijuana possession in 2014 (two-game suspension in ‘15) and missed multiple drug tests in ’16 (three games). He might be subject to a longer suspension if he tests positive again, depending on whether he has completed the NFL’s drug program.

The good and bad make it tough to project Bell’s market. In a column last month, Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports reported that several NFL general managers and salary-cap analysts questioned whether Bell will get what he’s believed to be seeking in free agency: a $16 million to $17 million average and $40 million guaranteed. Several were quoted as saying he’s more likely to be in the $12 million to $13 million range in average pay.

But in free agency, it only takes one. As a scout I talked with this week put it, “I think he’ll have a good market because it’s not a good free-agent class.”

For context, Todd Gurley became the NFL’s highest-paid running back this year with his four-year extension that averages $14.375 million. Arizona’s David Johnson is next with his three-year extension that averages $13.3 million. But that’s just new money. Gurley’s real average is $11.5 million, and Johnson’s is $10.22 million.

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There are a lot of ways to break down these contracts and assess their worth, based on guarantees and the like. To make it simple, we’ll put it like this: Gurley’s deal will pay him $26.95 million over the first two years and $40 million over the first three. Johnson’s is $20.6 million over the first two and $31.8 million over the first three.

Neither of them had the leverage of being on the open market, but they don’t have Bell’s baggage, either. Gurley also is younger at a position that ages fast (he’ll be only 25 next season).

So what to pay Bell if you’re the Packers? If he can be had for $30 million over the first two years, the Packers should seriously consider it. Would that get it done, or will someone offer more? We won’t know until March.

Of course, that’s all assuming there’s not a pass rusher Gutekunst thinks is worthy. He doesn’t have the money to sign both. There’d be nothing left over to shore up the rest of the roster.

There are always risks in free agency, and there would be here. But the Packers will have the money, and Bell just might be worth a big swing.

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