Le’Veon Bell is reportedly on the trade block, but the unique circumstances surrounding his contract impasse with the Pittsburgh Steelers will likely limit the number of teams that can acquire him.
The Steelers’ franchise-tagged running back can’t sign a contract extension until after the 2018 season. He’s also due $11.98 million for the rest of the campaign, so any team trading for him must have the cap space to take on that salary.
Related: Bell likes tweet suggesting he’s played his last snap with Steelers
Therefore, while some teams might trade for Bell with the intention of retaining him long term, others could view the three-time Pro Bowler as a rental.
Here are five teams that should be calling the Steelers as soon as possible:
At long last, the Browns are winners again. While Baker Mayfield played just one half in Week 3, the No. 1 overall pick looks like the real deal, and he should make Cleveland competitive for the rest of 2018. Thursday’s dramatic comeback win ended the team’s painful losing streak, and it likely changed how the Browns view this season.
The Browns need to keep winning, and so does head coach Hue Jackson if he wants to remain employed. They can’t lean on Mayfield, a rookie quarterback, and ask him to work his magic every week. Running back Carlos Hyde is no slouch either, but he doesn’t create plays all by himself, as evidenced by his 3.3 yards-per-carry average.
Cleveland has the cap space (nearly $60 million) to acquire Bell, and the team couldn’t ask for better support behind its young quarterback than the versatile runner. Pittsburgh would likely be hesitant to trade Bell within the division. But the Steelers’ options are limited, and sending him to Cleveland would end this bitter saga.
Green Bay Packers
If there’s one team that should consider renting Bell, it’s the Packers. Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers has frequently been a miracle worker, but he suffered a knee injury in Week 1 and is still limited, and desperately needs someone by his side who can carry Green Bay’s offense. Bell falls squarely into that category.
Entering Week 3, Green Bay ranked 25th in rushing yards per game, and the offense was averaging only four yards per carry. The Packers were playing catch-up during Sunday’s loss to the Washington Redskins, making the running game an afterthought. But that’s where Bell could be valuable. He’s as good a receiver as he is a runner, and would give Green Bay a huge upgrade over the likes of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams as a ball-carrier, while also arguably becoming the team’s second-best pass-catcher behind Davante Adams.
The Packers’ lack of cap space (just under $8 million) could shatter the dream of Rodgers and Bell lining up in the same backfield. However, Green Bay’s championship window is closing, and new general manager Brian Gutekunst showed this offseason that he’s willing to take more risks than the previous front-office regime.
New York Jets
Sam Darnold’s first three NFL games have been a roller-coaster ride. He was crowned the king of New York in his debut, only to come back down to earth over the next two weeks. The rookie is supremely talented, but it’s clear he needs more help, and the Jets don’t want to put too much of the offensive workload on his inexperienced shoulders and risk magnifying bad habits.
Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell have been a decent running-back duo so far this season, but they’ve combined for just 10 catches and 100 yards through three games. Bell, meanwhile, caught 160 passes over the past two seasons, and he would give the Jets a much-needed extra dimension to their offense. He’d instantly be the star of the show in New York too, taking much of the media spotlight away from Darnold in addition to the offensive-leader role.
If they’re smart, the Jets will try to surround Darnold with as much talent as possible while he’s on his rookie contract, just as the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, and Philadelphia Eagles have done with their young quarterbacks. Acquiring Bell now could help kickstart a quick turnaround, potentially pushing New York into playoff contention as early as next season.
While it’s questionable if the rebuilding Colts would want to give up significant assets for Bell, it’s no secret the running back wouldn’t mind landing in Indy. Bell has commented on multiple social media posts about the Colts, and tight end Eric Ebron even openly recruited him several weeks ago.
The Colts have invested heavily at the position, drafting Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins over the past two years. But none of those backs are in Bell’s stratosphere, and quarterback Andrew Luck doesn’t look capable of carrying the offense yet as he continues to regain his arm strength.
Money isn’t an issue for the Colts. Indy has just over $51 million in cap space after not making a splash in free agency, and a mind-boggling $124 million available for 2019. If Bell could be acquired without mortgaging the Colts’ future, general manager Chris Ballard may be tempted to swing for the fences and take pressure off his struggling franchise player.
The Texans were a sleeper Super Bowl contender entering the season. They were supposed to ride the insanely talented Deshaun Watson and a finally healthy defense to at least a wild-card spot. Instead, Houston is winless after three games and scrambling to find answers for its anemic offense.
While running back Lamar Miller has performed solidly, he lacks the game-breaking speed and ability to make plays after the catch. Defenses zero in on Watson, and the Texans’ offensive line isn’t capable of holding up if the quarterback is forced to throw 40-plus times a game.
The Texans need a playmaker like Bell, and with $26 million in cap space in 2018 and around $88 million in 2019, taking on his salary and giving him a record-breaking deal next offseason won’t be a problem. Like the Jets and Browns, the Texans could follow the blueprint set by the Eagles and Rams, teams that have maximized the financial freedom granted by having a quarterback on an affordable rookie contract.