After reportedly trying to trade Le’Veon Bell, the New York Jets gave up on their expensively acquired running back and released him Tuesday night. The Jets are still on the hook to pay Bell a $2.5 million bonus Thursday and the prorated remainder of his base salary, which amounts to $6 million. Any team acquiring him can do so for the league minimum.
Frankly, whichever team signs Bell won’t be getting a significant bargain on paper. The last time he was an effective player was 2017, when he approached 2,000 yards from scrimmage. He sat out all of 2018 in a contract dispute and then did nothing in his time with the Jets after signing in 2019. Since the start of last season, Bell has averaged 3.2 yards per carry, which ranks 48th out of 49 backs. As a receiver, he has averaged just under 7 yards per reception, which is 125th out of 132 players. He has been worse than a replacement-level back.
Of course, any team acquiring Bell is going to hope that he finds new life away from the Jets and coach Adam Gase. By NFL Next Gen Stats, though, Bell’s problems weren’t strictly a product of a middling offensive line. Since the start of last season, he has produced 110 rushing yards below expectation given his blocking, the fourth-worst mark in the league behind Devonta Freeman, Peyton Barber and Todd Gurley. Freeman, Gurley and Bell all signed lucrative contract extensions, and each was cut after they disappointed while on those deals.
Bell will find interest somewhere, both as a reclamation project and because of his versatility. Which teams might be interested? Let’s run through the possible candidates, starting with the most plausible suitors:
Possible destinations for Le’Veon Bell
I’ll start with the Bears, who are the most obvious fit to me. Matt Nagy’s team is 4-1, and while you can poke holes in Chicago’s résumé, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Bears a 55.8% chance of making it to the postseason. They also have approximately $10 million in cap space, so adding a small salary to their roster won’t be an issue.
Bell would be a replacement for Tarik Cohen, who went down with a torn ACL at the end of September. David Montgomery is on the roster and would still be the featured back, but the 2019 third-rounder hasn’t looked good as the primary back, failing to top 30 yards rushing or receiving in each of the past two games. Chicago has used Cordarrelle Patterson as a change of pace, but Bell would immediately step in and take Cohen’s role in the offense, which should be something in the ballpark of eight to 10 touches per game.
The Chiefs are another team with a young back that might want Bell as a second option. Rookie first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire has had impressive moments during his first five weeks, but he has struggled in the red zone, failing to score once on seven touches inside the 5-yard line. I’m willing to chalk that up to a small sample, but the backs behind Edwards-Helaire are underwhelming. Darrel Williams has averaged 3.2 yards per carry and less than 6 yards per reception, and Darwin Thompson lost a fumble on one of his six touches. Coach Andy Reid is the screen whisperer, and I suspect the Chiefs could find a way to integrate Bell into their offense alongside Edwards-Helaire.
No team seems more interested in compiling veteran running backs than the Bucs, who still haven’t really found an effective receiver for Tom Brady. Ronald Jones has been solid as a runner, but he has had serious problems with drops in the passing game. Leonard Fournette isn’t healthy. LeSean McCoy hasn’t been effective in any facet of the game and has an ankle injury; Bell would likely take McCoy’s spot on the roster.
Brady has always had that player in New England in a role that was alternately filled by Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen and most recently James White. It’s difficult to imagine the Buccaneers signing another back, but strictly as a pass protector and receiver, Bell would give the Bucs something they don’t have.
The best story of the bunch would see Bell return to the Steelers, but I’m skeptical there’s a great fit. James Conner is averaging nearly 5 yards per carry as the Pittsburgh starter, and while he has his injury issues, Benny Snell Jr. was effective in what amounted to a spot start against the Giants when Conner was unavailable. The Steelers also have Anthony McFarland Jr. in reserve and Jaylen Samuels in a third-down role.
Bell would likely be an upgrade on Samuels and a viable back behind an effective Pittsburgh offensive line, but I’m not sure he would get the sort of touches he would want in his bid to reemerge as an option ahead of free agency in 2021. Furthermore, things didn’t exactly end well between the two parties, given that Bell held out for a season before leaving Pittsburgh in free agency. Familiarity means something, which is why the Steelers are where they are on this list, but Bell makes more sense elsewhere.
The Browns are off to a 4-1 start and have one of the best rushing attacks in football. Coach Bill Callahan’s line has been clearing holes for Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, but Chubb is out indefinitely with a sprained MCL. Bell is much more similar to Hunt than he is to the former Georgia star, but Bell was an effective runner between the tackles in Pittsburgh, and there’s nothing wrong with having two backs who can catch the ball.
Bell would step in for D’Ernest Johnson, who has averaged 6 yards a pop on his 22 carries filling in for Chubb. I’m not sure Bell would be thrilled about a situation in which he might be phased out of the offense once Chubb returns, but his best chance of looking good in a small sample might be playing in this run-heavy offense.
One team that was linked to Bell when he was approaching free agency was the 49ers, who can never have enough weapons for coach Kyle Shanahan. San Francisco is beat up around its roster, and although it got Raheem Mostert back for Sunday’s blowout loss to the Dolphins, virtually every one of its backs has a recent and/or significant injury history.
I wonder whether the 49ers might get particularly creative with Bell and use him less like a pure running back and more like the sort of hybrid back Gase pretended to suggest Bell might become in New York. Shanahan loves nothing more than having offensive weapons who are threats as both runners and receivers with the ball in their hands. Bell would be another one of those pieces.
The Titans went to 4-0 with Tuesday’s victory over the Bills, and they have a star back in Derrick Henry, but there’s little behind the 2019 rushing leader. Henry has racked up plenty of volume over his first four games, but he’s averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and has never been a great receiver. Bell would take some of the workload off of Henry and give the Titans a third-down option. Jeremy McNichols is currently in that role for Ryan Tannehill & Co.
Few teams are throwing the ball more frequently this season than the Seahawks, who have hit their bye at 5-0. Seattle would probably prefer to make some additions to a struggling defense, and it has Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde in its rotation, but Carson has never completed a full 16-game season, and Hyde has been out of action with a shoulder injury.
Travis Homer took more than 40% of the offensive snaps during Sunday night’s win over the Vikings. While the Seahawks have both Homer and fourth-round pick DeeJay Dallas as possible options, Bell would be the best receiving back on the Seattle roster if he signed there.
The Dolphins’ backfield hasn’t performed as expected this season. Miami guaranteed Jordan Howard nearly $5 million, but the former Chicago starter produced just 14 rushing yards on 18 carries before being scratched for the win over the 49ers. Matt Breida‘s 27 carries have produced a total of 100 yards, but the primary back has been 2019 seventh-rounder Myles Gaskin, who has 87 touches through five games while taking 66% of the offensive snaps.
Gaskin’s versatility is a plus, and he ranks ninth in success rate, but a lack of explosiveness has left him below average in both rushing and receiving DVOA. I’m not sure the Dolphins are ready to give up on their starter or either of their offseason additions, but Bell could be an upgrade if they are.
Finally, the Cardinals have to be frustrated with what they’ve seen from Kenyan Drake. The transition-tagged back scored his first touchdown last week, but he is averaging just 3.7 yards per touch, both as a runner and receiver. Chase Edmonds has looked like the more dynamic player in the Arizona backfield, and while Drake was a borderline first-round pick in most fantasy drafts, the former Dolphins standout might be in danger of losing his grip on the starting job.
The Cards could move forward with some combination of Drake and Edmonds, but remember that they traded for Drake a year ago while they had Edmonds and David Johnson on their roster. Both Edmonds and Johnson were injured at the time, so while it would likely take an injury to at least one Cardinals back to get Bell on the roster, coach Kliff Kingsbury could find a role for the shifty Bell if that happens.