ESPN is all over the Le’Veon Bell beat as the beginning of the offseason cycle begins. Both Mike Wells (in a bold predictions column) and Dan Graziano (in a less team-by-team focused bold predictions column) matched the Texans with the star running back.
I can understand where national reporters are coming from when they link the team and the player together. The Texans have $64 million in cap space before they decide what to do with Demaryius Thomas on a torn Achilles at a $14 million cap number. In other words, even Jadeveon Clowney’s inevitable franchise tag isn’t going to keep the Texans from having some cash to splash. Heck, releasing Lamar Miller would free up another $6.2 million in cap space — that can help pay for Bell.
Meanwhile, the Texans have been one of the NFL’s run-heaviest teams since Bill O’Brien took over. O’Brien’s default persona as a coach is to win with a conservative, run-heavy attack against any team that will let him. The Texans had an average lead of 1.61 points at the beginning of each of their offensive drives — to put that into perspective, they were ahead of the Saints as far as average lead. The perfect way to sustain a running game is to get a back for whom blocking barely matters. That’s what Bell has delivered.
In Bell’s last season on the field, 2017, he forced 79 broken tackles per Sports Info Solutions — the second-highest total in the NFL. I mention this because it is something entirely under his control, unlike yards per carry. He’s an empirically good running back in the sense that he was making something out of nothing more often than most of them. Bell was also in the top 5 of all running backs in the statistic in 2016, and likely would have been a leading candidate in 2015 had he played more than six games — he was on pace for 51, which would have placed him in third.
So in the sense of putting two and two together, I get where these writers are coming from and understand their rationale. On paper, the Texans should value Bell’s skill set more than most teams, and they also have the cap space to make it happen.
I think there are many reasons to disbelieve that the Texans will actually be interested, though most of them could be turned on their head by the ownership change from Bob McNair to Cal McNair being more of a shift than I think it will be.
— The team has steadfastly refused to spend big in free agency as a core value. Johnathan Joseph and Brock Osweiler are the only two times Houston has ponied up to sign any free agent, and the Osweiler signing was both a child-touching-a-hot-stove moment and, simultaneously, still cheaper than most quarterbacks. They’re a team that tends to bring in the Aaron Colvin or Antonio Smith-level player, or Robaire Smith for you older fans out there.
— The team refuses to negotiate with malcontents. They got Dunta Robinson out the second they could after he wrote “Pay Me Rick” on his shoes. They traded Duane Brown for a second-round pick even though it made Deshaun Watson get destroyed last season. Bell was such a pill for the Steelers last year that I find it hard to believe the Texans would be comfortable investing in him. What he did in rejecting the franchise tag, be it his call or his agent’s, was off-the-charts crazy in a league where most teams want players to show up and be consistent. There’s nothing consistent about what Bell did.
— Brian Gaine’s first year of free agency was limited to tepid splashes. Besides Colvin and Zach Fulton, nobody got much of a guarantee of being on the roster in 2019.
That isn’t to say there’s no chance that the Texans will pursue Bell — I just think it’s not very likely.
But, back to those broken tackle leaderboards for a second — let me show you why I wouldn’t chase Bell: Three of the top six players in broken tackles last year were not first-day picks or cheap free-agent signings. Adrian Peterson, Chris Carson, and James Conner. 2017’s top six included Alvin Kamara (third round), Kareem Hunt (third round), and Alex Collins (UDFA for Baltimore). 2016’s top six had David Johnson (third round), Devonta Freeman (fourth round), and Jay Ajayi (fifth round). NFL teams have proven to not be all that great at figuring out what a good running back looks like, and at the same time, NFL backs have notoriously been very poor returns on investment because the position only beats up it’s stars worse the longer they play. By the time any running back hits unrestricted free agency, he’s lost his best years. You want to develop Le’Veon Bell, not pay him.
If you follow me enough to be reading this, and are familiar with most analytical football thought about running backs, this conclusion won’t surprise you. Analytical football and valuing running backs are oil and water.
The Texans might have enough money to make Bell a compelling one-year offer (as far as actual guaranteed money) and see how he fits into things in 2020. Maybe even a two-year guaranteed layout could make sense. It kind of depends on how the Texans want to approach Will Fuller’s contract. But I would argue that it is imperative for the franchise to sign Deshaun Watson to a contract extension as soon as they can in 2020 for their long-term cap health. When you combine that with the negotiations for Clowney and J.J. Watt entering the last year of his guaranteed money in 2019 — maybe mix in something long-term for D.J. Reader if they want to really get frisky — it becomes difficult to see how the Texans can weigh their gigantic holes at cornerback and offensive line against the cash outlay I expect Bell to want and come to the conclusion that it makes sense.
While I love Bell as a player, and I have no problems at all with national writers “mocking him” (for lack of a better term) to the Texans, I think his situation is a lot more tenuous than it might appear from the outside. Football has mostly resisted the appeal to higher statistical knowledge, but I don’t know that there’s a team out there ready to give the Todd Gurley contract to Bell coming off a year where he did nothing but alienate his team. I could definitely see a Bryce Harper/Manny Machado-esque freeze coming for Bell. When you combine a negotiating team that wouldn’t even take the franchise tender with a slightly more enlightened NFL, it could be a tough sale. And that’s before we even get into the noise about the Steelers transition tagging Bell.
Inserting Bell into the Houston offense would give them a core of skill position players that would be among the league’s best. Bell’s past makes him worthy of a real investment. I just don’t think either the Texans or the rest of the league are going to be thrilled about making it.