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IS LE’VEON BELL REPLACEABLE? Courier sports columnist Mike Pelaia believes so. (AP Photo)

Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the NFL, hands down, in my opinion. He runs well, he catches the ball out of the backfield and he’s a very good blocker. Bell is an every-down back. He’s a rare entity in today’s NFL.

He knows this and so do the Steelers. The problem is, they have a very different opinion on what that rarity is worth.

I have been a proponent of paying Bell $15 million a year for the next four years. I felt like he should be locked to the team for at least that long. He’s just been that valuable. Or so I thought.

But, I’m changing my mind. At the price Bell is costing the Steelers, $14.5 million dollars this year if he signs the franchise tag, it isn’t worth it. He’s beginning to decline.

His yards-per-carry dropped by a full yard in rushing and a half-yard in receiving. That tends to happen for running backs after four or five years in the league. Bell is only 25, which many of us wish we could still be, but in the NFL, as a running back, especially one who plays every down, he’s aging quickly. Statistics say he’s got three good years left in him and maybe two average years after that before he’s done. Will he be worth $14 million or more on annual basis in a couple of years? Is he even worth that now?

Bell will tell you he is worth $17 million annually and word is, that’s what he wants in order to sign a long-term contract. He wants Antonio Brown money. But for Bell, that won’t happen, nor should it.

That is a complete reversal of what I thought at the end of the season. But then I looked at DeVonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons, the second-highest paid running back behind Bell, who makes eight million dollars annually. Freeman, while I’ll admit is not as good as Bell and doesn’t produce quite as much as Bell, does average a half-yard more per carry and over a yard more per reception. And by the way, he’s also 25 years old.

How can Bell justify a payment of six to nine million more on an annual basis than the next best guy, who is very comparable to Bell?

But it doesn’t stop at production. Bell is becoming a distraction. It began with his holdout last offseason. Then, stupidly, he threatened to retire this offseason if he doesn’t get the right deal, in the middle of the playoffs! The talking didn’t stop there, though. Talking about facing the Patriots before even playing the Jaguars in the playoffs was ignorant. Essentially missing the team walkthrough before the Jaguars game and showing up late for the game was unacceptable and selfish. And now, the coup de’tat—saying he’s being made out as a villain by the fans of Pittsburgh.

He’s digging his own grave.

The fans want Bell to stay, they adore him for what he brings to the field on Sundays but they do expect a little bit of humility. You’re not going to get a whole lot of sympathy in this town when you’re debating over making $17 million dollars instead of $12-$15 million. You’ve made your bed Le’Veon, now you must lay in it.

If Bell and the Steelers do come to a long-term agreement, he will certainly be welcomed by all with open arms. But if the Steelers give in to his demands, or even continue to pay him what the franchise tag dictates, Bell is hindering this team from winning. The amount of money he’s taking up is preventing the team from filling areas of need.

Look at New England and Philadelphia. They both made it to the big game by using a running back by committee. Not having a feature back worked.

The Steelers have enough playmakers to do the same. They don’t need Bell to win. They can plug in a back they draft in the third round, pay him a rookie salary, and get close to the same output on the ground. They can make up the reception yards elsewhere, it’s not difficult.

As I write this, I feel even more so that the Steelers should rescind the tag now, draft the back of the next four years and move on. Their success does not rely as heavily on Bell as he might think.

 

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