By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Let’s talk about Le’Veon Bell and the Patriots.
It has to be done. Any time a great or once-great player hits the market, it’s borderline malpractice to not consider the Patriots’ involvement.
But first, for those of you just tuning in, a quick recap of why Bell is available in the first place. After putting together three All-Pro seasons in Pittsburgh, Bell held out of the entire 2018 season after being franchise tagged by the Steelers. In March of 2019, he signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Jets as an unrestricted free agent. It was one of the largest contracts given out that spring.
Then-Jets GM Mike Maccagnan signed Bell two months after bringing in Adam Gase as the team’s new head coach. The idea was that Gase would help develop 2018 third-overall pick Sam Darnold, with Bell serving as a reliable weapon while they built up the rest of the roster.
However, Gase was against the Bell signing from the beginning. So when Maccagnan was fired in May (an unconventional move by Jets owner Woody Johnson) and Gase took over as GM, he immediately tried to move Bell, before he had even played a down with the Jets. Unable to do so given his massive contract, Bell’s playing time was limited by Gase in his time in New York. This led to frustration from both sides and Bell’s eventual release 19 months after he signed.
So here we are. Bell is now a free agent. And because of the $19 million still owed to him by the Jets, any team that wants him can likely offer him at or above the veteran minimum. His free agency should be based on skill and fit, not financials.
Unlike other cases of star players being released in-season, there hasn’t been a rush of news regarding Bell’s free agency. For instance – when Earl Thomas was cut back in August, the Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport types immediately had lists of the three to five teams who were favorites to land him. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a major peep about interest in Bell.
Why? Well, there are legitimate questions surrounding where he’s at as a football player. His last truly productive season was four years ago, which is eons in football time. After sitting out 2018, he averaged a career-low 5.9 yards per touch in his first year with the Jets in 2019, and has barely played this season.
Any teams potentially interested in Bell has to ask themselves this question – is his regression the result of a year away from football plus natural aging (he’s 28), or were his struggles a product of poor coaching with the Jets?
While there’s certainly validity to the first point – 28 may be seen as ‘up there’ in age for a running back – the second explanation holds more weight.
Bell would hardly be the first person to have his abilities capped by an Adam Gase-coached team. The worst years of Ryan Tannehill’s career happened under Gase in Miami. The Titans traded a sixth-round pick for him before the 2019 season, and after assuming the starting role part-way through that season, he took them to the AFC Championship game. Since getting out from under Gase’s thumb, he’s been one of the better quarterbacks in the league.
There’s also wide receiver Robby Anderson. The Temple product put up career low numbers under Gase in 2019. Now with the Carolina Panthers, he’s on pace to shatter his statistical marks from last year. These are just two of a number of examples, but the point is Adam Gase has a history of making good players look bad.
That brings us to Bill Belichick and the Patriots. This situation is Bill Belichick’s bread and butter – taking a player unhappy and/or misused by his previous organization, putting that player in a spot to succeed, and allowing them to reset their value across the league ahead of free agency.
It’s not that dissimilar to the situation Cam Newton was in just a few months ago. And while there are obvious inherent differences between the quarterback and running back positions, the idea is the same. A former superstar who has had a few rough years with a team that didn’t seem fully committed to getting him involved, trying to prove the rest of the league was wrong for passing on him.
The two biggest arguments being made against the Patriots signing Bell are ‘character issues’ and the current depth they have at the running back position.
That the ‘character issues’ argument isn’t dead and buried by now is beyond me, but let’s run through this again. The point of a signing like this is there is very little money on the line, and if the player doesn’t “buy in” you can release them for minimal penalty.
People will be quick to compare Bell to Antonio Brown, but there are two key differences in the situations. Bell has usually gripped about things like usage and playing time, not refusing to wear a helmet and freezing his feet off. There’s no red flags in Bell’s past like there are/were in Brown’s. Plus, the Patriots gave Brown significant guaranteed money. There was a sharp cap penalty for releasing him. It’s unlikely the team would give Bell a similar deal.
As for the current strength at the position, that’s not an inaccurate assessment in itself. Running back is one of the strongest positional groups of the Patriots roster. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be better.
Belichick works under the belief that anytime you can make a move that improves the roster, it’s the right move to make. We know the Patriots aren’t adverse to adding to their current running back group – they sent an offer to Leonard Fournette after he was cut by the Jaguars last month.
So which Patriots team is better? The current roster, or the current roster but with Le’Veon Bell instead of J.J. Taylor (for a similar price). That’s nothing against Taylor, he’s been one of the most encouraging rookies on the team this season. But if Bell can get back to 80 or 90 percent of the player he was in Pittsburgh, it could revolutionize the offense.
Bell’s patience is what made him one of the best backs in the league during his time in Pittsburgh. Fans should remember Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth gushing as he jitterbugged behind the offensive line, waiting for the hole to open. That’s a style that would translate well to New England, working with one of the best offensive lines in the league.
His patience would also make the most of read option opportunities with Cam Newton. It’s not that James White or Rex Burkhead have struggled on those plays, they haven’t. But Bell’s ability to hesitate and read the defense would push the Patriots’ ground attack to the next level.
Then, there’s how he contributes in the passing game. From 2013 to 2017 (Bell’s time in Pittsburgh), no running back in football had more receptions or receiving yards. Bell in comfortably ahead of the next guy on the list (Matt Forte) despite playing nine less games in that span.
There’s been plenty of talk about the Patriots adding a receiver or tight end at the deadline, but Bell could potentially have the same impact on the passing game, while being a cheaper option to bring in. Not only can he contribute catching balls out of the backfield, but in his last year in Pittsburgh, Bell lined up as a traditional wide receiver on 132 snaps – a look that was highly effective.
Bell caught 85 passes for 655 yards that year. Both of those marks would have been second to Julian Edelman on the Patriots in 2019. Yet the Jets never used Bell in that fashion, locking him into a more traditional running back role. He saw just 78 targets in 2019, the fewest since he was a rookie.
This is where the idea of Bell’s shortcomings being a product of wayward coaching comes back. There’s no doubt, if the Patriots did sign Bell, they’d use him all over the formation and fully unlock his potential, something Adam Gase failed to do. Putting Bell and James White on the field at the same time would be a matchup nightmare for defenses, and allow Josh McDaniels to get more creative in his play calling.
Bell would also allow the Patriots to manage the workout of White and Burkhead, something they’re already making a concerted effort to do this season.
Bill Belichick has gushed about Le’Veon Bell in the past. Not too long ago, he was one of the premier offensive weapons in the league, and brings the kind of versatility the Patriots crave. Now, he’s just sitting out there on the open market, waiting to be signed.
All of the makings of a Belichick reclamation project are here. Will he pull the trigger? We’ll have to wait and see. But as free agent signings go, this would be very ‘on-brand’ for the Patriots. It doesn’t have to happen immediately, either. They could revisit him once more is known about Sony Michel’s injury, or if other issues pop up. If Bell goes unsigned for the rest of the season, still expect them to be major players in March, when they’ll have an excess of cap space and Bell’s value will likely still be low. How could it not be if he goes three quarters of a season unsigned?
Adding talent to the roster is never a bad thing, especially when it comes at an affordable price. Whether or not Bell still possess that game-breaking ability we saw in Pittsburgh is certainly a fair debate – he essentially hasn’t been 100 percent in three years. A lot can change in that time span. But if the Patriots watch the film and believe he’s still that guy (or at least close to it), there’s no reason to count out seeing him in a Patriots uniform in the near future.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.