According to NFL.com, just hours before the NFL deadline Le’Veon Bell turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers that would have given him the largest multi-year contract of any NFL running back. We’re talking $70 million over five years, which averages out to $14 million per year. Unfortunately for Steelers fans everywhere, Bell’s reported asking price was around 17 million, and last season he made the most of any NFL running back already, netting $12.1 million. As we debate whether the Steelers offer was reasonable- and there is so much more to it than the following question to consider- we must first debate if Bell is deserving of the most money for an NFL running back.
In other words, is Bell currently the best in the business at his position when healthy and able to play? There are several running backs one could compare him to, but we will move forward with just two- Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, which rounds out Eric Dickerson’s currently stated top three running backs in the NFL. And to be fair, we will only look at the past two seasons, as that makes this conversation recent and keeps it fair to Elliott who has only been in the NFL that long.
Elliott is a powerful and explosive running back who has averaged 4.6 yards per running attempt over the past two seasons resulting in 2,614 yards. He’s done this behind what just about everyone believes is one of the top two offensive lines in football. Bell has averaged 4.4 yards per carry resulting in 2,559 yards behind a very good offensive line, but not as good as the Cowboys’ when it comes to run blocking. Gurley has averaged 3.9 yards per carry the past two seasons resulting in 2,190 yards behind what would be considered a very solid line from 2017, but not so much the year prior. If one just looks at the stats and the offensive lines these running backs achieved their numbers behind, Elliott and Bell are debatable in terms of running yards from scrimmage given the difference in their offensive lines, whereas Gurley isn’t close. Now the argument would be that Gurley played on a pretty poor team in 2016 without a quarterback, making it harder on him. Valid argument. Here’s another- we probably shouldn’t be so quick to place Gurley in the elite of NFL running backs until he’s been a consistent performer.
So as far as rushing yards go, it’s a push between Bell and Elliott.
Once we move to receiving yards, things get interesting. First, there’s the clear best receiver out of the backfield in this group- Le’Veon Bell. Over the past two seasons, Bell has accumulated 160 catches for 1271 yards in 27 games started. Gurley has mustered 107 catches for 1,115 yards, including a whopping 788 yards last season. Yes, Gurley did endure that lost year, but he also started 31 games over the past two seasons (four more than Bell). And then there’s Elliott with his 58 catches for 632 yards, coming in a distant third place. Bell does have an advantage with the best quarterback throwing to him in this group, but he also has 53 more catches than Gurley with four fewer games started.
Finally, there’s blocking. Is this the end-all, be-all part in this conversation? Not even close. But the fact is that Bell is a strong pass blocker, and Elliott is a big-time blocker. Gurley, on the other hand, perhaps still needs to improve on this front.
When you break it down, Bell has been either the best rusher or second best rusher to Elliott over the past two seasons in this group- it’s close. He’s been the best pass catcher, though Gurley is surging. Bell is also one of the two best blockers in the group, which is important, even if it’s not as important as rushing and pass receiving when talking about a feature back. In the end, Bell is top two in all areas, the only of the three to achieve this. And finally, his running style, which is a first when it comes to degree of patience, makes it hard for teams to game plan for him because he’s literally the only one in the NFL who currently has anywhere near that style. You just don’t see it until it’s upon you.
And for these reasons, when healthy and able to play, Bell is the best running back in the NFL right now. Next up will be whether he is a reliable enough player at this age for the kind of money the Steelers offered, or the kind of money that he wants.