There’s no harm in asking, so reaching out to the Steelers about holdout running back Le’Veon Bell makes perfect sense. After all, the Jets do their due diligence with every player who might be available, and now that Pittsburgh is willing to entertain trade offers, there’s no harm in a phone call.
But in this case, general manager Mike Maccagnan ought to take a pass.
Don’t get me wrong. Bell is a supremely talented running back, and at age 26, is in the prime of his career. But as much of a short-term jolt he might provide to a Jets offense that is now at the mercy of Sam Darnold’s development, Bell’s situation is too complicated and too uncertain to be of definitive long-term value to the team.
Bell is in the midst of a protracted contract dispute that has gone on far longer than anyone might have expected just a few weeks ago. There was every reason to believe he would do as he did last year after signing a one-year franchise tender: wait until just before the start of the season and report for work, thereby earning his regular-season paychecks from Day 1.
The Steelers applied a one-year, $14.5-million tender on Bell for 2018, but unlike last year, Bell decided against reporting and is now missing $852,000 for every week he misses. The tab is now over $2.5 million.
The tricky part with Bell’s situation is this: The rules of the franchise tender prevent a player from receiving a long-term contract until after the season, so no team – not the Steelers, not the Jets or anyone else who might trade for him – can agree on a deal beyond 2018. That means the Jets would essentially be renting Bell for a maximum of 13 games, with no guarantee he would be here in 2019 and beyond.
Yes, they can have a verbal agreement in place with Bell that they’re willing to meet his asking price on a deal next season, but absent a binding agreement, that’s simply too big a gamble to take. Especially if the Steelers are looking for significant draft choice compensation.
The Jets are already without next year’s second-round pick because of the deal with Indianapolis that netted them Sam Darnold in the draft. They do have a third-round pick from the Teddy Bridgewater trade to the Saints, but do you want to give that away for a player who might be gone in 2019?
Don’t think so.
That’s not to take anything away from Bell. He’s a uniquely talented player whose skillset would help any offense. Bell became an integral part of the Steelers’ offense and provided Ben Roethlisberger an undeniable presence in the backfield. He has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in three of the last four seasons and has a combined 34 rushing and receiving touchdowns in that span.
He’s a difference maker, no question, although it helps that the Steelers have one of the best offensive lines in football - unlike the Jets' line, which is average.
Bell also has sent out signals in recent weeks that he’s reluctant to shoulder a major burden if he were to return to the Steelers, citing his concerns about remaining healthy after the season when he would be in line for a big-money contract. Is that the kind of player you want on a rebuilding team such as the Jets, who are far more than just an All-Pro running back away from being a playoff contender?
The better choice is to wait until the offseason when the Jets have about $100 million in salary cap space. If they want to make a run at Bell when he's an unrestricted free agent and you don’t have to gamble away a draft pick while signing him to a long-term deal, then fine.
For now, it’s best to stay away.