Until Jeremy Fowler's Monday night report on Bell's timetable for return, the Steelers had been spending the past week or so exploring the trade market for Bell. This was the week, without indications that a thaw was imminent, when it started to feel as though the relationship was broken and the Steelers would end up moving on.
We know it won't be easy. If they're doing a deal before Week 7, Bell would have to sign off on any trade, since he'd have to sign his tender before the Steelers could execute one. And because his concerns -- as articulated by his agent -- seem to be workload-related, you'd have to think the teams with the best chance to acquire him are teams that wouldn't have to work him as hard as the Steelers do.
So, just in case the Steelers have decided they're better off trading Bell than welcoming him back, here are my five not-so-crazy Le'Veon Bell destinations, including a couple you might not have thought of yet.
Before we get started here, yes, I am aware that the Rams have basically no cap room and couldn't absorb even Bell's deflating-by-the-week cap number without moving money around. But you can always move money around as long as you're willing to push cap troubles down the road a couple of years, and who's more all-in on 2018 than the Rams are? They apparently tried to trade for Khalil Mack, and that would have required some fresh cap room. So you know they've thought about how to do it.
Where would he play? Oh, you know Sean McVay would love to give you 500 answers to that question. He could line up Bell and Todd Gurley together in the backfield, direct-snap it to one or both of them, put Bell in the slot or line him up out wide, switch off series between the two to preserve them both for the playoffs, design any number of things he can imagine and I never could. ... No one can stop the Rams as it already is. Adding an all-around weapon like this would take it to an even crazier level. Bell would have no workload concerns with Gurley there, and he could go his own way after the season with no hard feelings -- especially if they won a Super Bowl together in the meantime. Ultimate mercenary midseason pickup. This is the best idea there is.
Leonard Fournette, in case you don't have him on your fantasy team and haven't noticed, is not exactly the picture of reliable health. But he's also not out for the season, as far as we know. And with him and T.J. Yeldon there, the Jags have enough in the backfield that they wouldn't have to wear out Bell as a runner. And he could invigorate the passing game as well with some safe, close-to-the-line Blake Bortles throws. The Jags are a win-now team too, ya know. And they have the cap room for Bell right now.
Problem with them and any other AFC contender (Tennessee, Houston and even New England make some sense for various reasons) is that the Steelers might not want to trade Bell to a team they could see in the playoffs. So the rest of my list will be NFC teams.
The "Adrian Peterssance" story is a fun one, but do you really think first-place Washington wouldn't kick Peterson to the curb (or at least cut back his role) if it had a chance to add Bell? This is another passing game that hasn't taken off yet, and based on the way Chris Thompson is used, it's clear Jay Gruden has a bunch of plays whose purpose is to throw the ball to a running back. Washington has enough capable dudes in the backfield that Bell wouldn't have to worry about overuse. Bell's salary would fit under its cap if he sits out one more week. Which it feels pretty safe to assume he will.
The Packers are an obvious choice, but they don't make moves like this, so what about the fast-fading Vikings? Second-year back Dalvin Cook is struggling to get all the way healthy, and even if Cook can play, he and Latavius Murray offer enough cover that the Vikings could promise to go easy on Bell. The Vikings are having pass-protection issues as well, and Bell can help there as a blocker and a receiver. And since he's only there for the remainder of this season, he wouldn't stand in the way of Cook developing into the Vikings' workhorse back of the future. Sadly, he cannot play defense. But the Vikings have to fix that either way. Like the Rams, they'd need to clear cap space.
The champs are 2-2 and all kinds of banged up. Their run through the Super Bowl last season showed an ability to design winning game plans without overworking any one back. Seems like they could use some kind of jolt, and Doug Pederson is another bright offensive playcaller and play-designer who could come up with cool ways to use Bell that we haven't thought of yet. Another team that would need to move money around, but again, the whole premise here was that you can do that.
Now, one problem with this idea that you can bring on Bell and promise not to overwork him is that, to a large extent, Bell's value is tied to his workload. Part of what has made him a difference-maker in Pittsburgh is that the Steelers have run the offense through him and he can play on all three downs. Is he worth enough as a complementary piece to convince a team to pony up a price worthwhile to Pittsburgh? Some team likely thinks so, especially as the weeks peel away and Bell's salary keeps dropping.
Some other things Week 4 taught us:
The Steelers still could have some interesting leverage on Bell
Let's say the Steelers don't trade Bell, and he comes back and plays the final six to eight games of the season for them. They still wouldn't be able to place a franchise tag on him for a third year in a row at a cost of roughly $24 million, but the transition tag comes into play in a potentially fascinating way. The transition tag would be 120 percent of his 2018 salary. So if he comes back in Week 7, he spends 11 weeks on the roster and gets 11/17ths of his original $14.544 million franchise tag. That comes out to about $9.41 million, and 120 percent of that is $11.3 million.
Of course, if they use the transition tag on him, another team could offer him the contract he wants and the Steelers would have only right of first refusal -- and wouldn't be entitled to draft-pick compensation if Bell left. The tag number doesn't change anything about that.
And it's possible, if the team took the stance that the tag is only 120 percent of what he actually made (as opposed to what he'd have made for a full season), that Bell and the NFL Players Association could file a grievance and argue for the full amount. But it's another wrinkle to this situation that could come into play, depending on whether Pittsburgh can trade him.
This is not the Steelers' only problem
One more on Pittsburgh and then I'm done. I promise. But amid all that's going on, the Steelers lost Sunday night at home in prime time to Baltimore. The Steelers are supposed to be a lock in prime time and a pretty good bet at home. But they lost, and they're now 1-2-1 overall and 0-1-1 in their division.
Bell staying away obviously hurts, but there are other problems. Antonio Brown was unhappy a couple of weeks back, the offensive line lit up Bell when he didn't show for Week 1, and on the field Pittsburgh's defense is, to borrow a high-level football scouting term, "not good." Entering Monday night's game, only Tampa Bay and Kansas City had allowed more yards per game so far this season.
According to what Bell told Fowler, he plans to skip two more games. Week 5 is at home against the Falcons, who haven't been winning but have been scoring a ton. The one after that is in Cincinnati against a Bengals team that's 3-1 in spite of having played three games on the road, two without Joe Mixon and four without Vontaze Burfict. Lose that one, and it's going to be real tough for the Steelers to come back and win the division. Lose both of the next two and go into the bye at 1-4-1, it's going to start to make even more sense to trade Bell.
Mike Tomlin's strength as a coach lies in his ability to keep all of the high-intensity personalities in his locker room in formation come game day. Winning has been the glue that has held the Steelers together amid perpetual drama for several years now. If the winning stops, this is a situation that could get very ugly very quickly.
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It's going to be a roller coaster with these young quarterbacks
Last week, everybody was fired up about Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen. This week, it's Mitchell Trubisky. Back in Week 1, it was Sam Darnold. Deshaun Watson was awesome Sunday but has had some spotty moments. Josh Rosen probably has a week coming up where he's going to look like the best of the bunch. Patrick Mahomes probably (possibly? maybe?) has a week coming up where he won't play like a planet-devouring superhuman. Talking to some Bears players before and after Sunday's game, I got the sense that they believed in Trubisky and his development in Matt Nagy's system but that they were eager for a week when they felt like Mahomes' teammates feel every week. They got it Sunday, and can go forward in the belief that more big days are coming. But the leaguewide lesson is that there are ups and downs with all of these guys, and progress is not likely to be unbroken for any of them. But the young QBs from the past couple of drafts have injected a fair bit of energy into the league, and just because they're not consistent doesn't mean they're not fun.