Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell registered a career year in 2017 and it included him touching the football a total of 406 times. Those 406 touches put Bell in a unique club as only 26 other different players in the history of the NFL have managed to hit the 400 touch mark during a regular season. With that noted, should we now be concerned that Bell’s workload in 2017 was too much? In a word, yes, we should be.
For starters, Bell was 25 during the 2017 season and he’ll turn 26 in February. In the history of the NFL, only 30 other times has a player 25 years or older touched the football 400 times or more during the regular season. Those 30 other times consisted of 22 different players.
Of those 30 different times that a player has registered 400 or more touches in a single season, only twice has a player bested both his rushing and receiving yardage totals the following season and that was Marshall Faulk (1998-1999) and Emmitt Smith (1994-1995). Only two other players besides Faulk and Smith increased their rushing yardage totals over the previous season and those running backs were Terrell Davis (1997-1998) and Curtis Martin (1998-1999). Those four players, by the way, are the only four players to see an increase in total yards from scrimmage the season after each registered 400 or more total touches in a single season and each of them did in the season in which they were 26 years of age. That’s at least some good news when it comes to Bell.
Last season, Bell rushed for 1,291 yards on 321 carries. Of the 43 different times in NFL history that a player has touched the football 400 times or more in a single regular season, only Martin in 1998 rushed for less yards (1,287) than Bell did last season. Additionally, only 8 out of 43 times did a player average less yards per carry than Bell did last season (4.02) in the season in which 400 or more touches were achieved.
So what does all of this mean? In short, history says that Bell is very likely to have a down season in 2018 compared to the stats he posted in 2017. Even if Bell does manage to register more total yards from scrimmage in 2018 than he did in 2017, how many total touches will it take him? 380? Another 400? That’s a lot of wear and tear.
Bell is set to earn $14.54 million in 2018 should he ultimately receive the franchise tag from Steelers in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the two sides will reportedly try to get a long term deal worked out prior to Feb. 20 and by March 6 at the latest. Should a new deal ultimately be consummated, Bell might stand to pocket around $18-$20 million for the 2018 season with the bulk of that being a signing bonus. This assumes that the two sides settle on a deal that will pay the running back an average of roughly $15 million a season.
Bell already has more than 1,500 total touches for his career. How many of you believe his next 1,500 will be as productive as those first 1,500 were? Will he even make it to another 1,500 touches and beyond? Only 20 players in the history of the NFL have managed to play long enough to register 3000 or more total touches. Only 4 of those players did it after entering the NFL in 2000 or later.
Personally, I would give Bell the $14.54 million franchise tag this offseason and be done with it if I were the Steelers. If he somehow becomes the fifth player in NFL history in 2018 to see an increase in total yards from scrimmage the season after registering 400 or more total touches in a single season, that would be fantastic. After the 2018 season I would congratulate Bell on a fine season that hopefully also ended in a Super Bowl win and wish him well in free agency.
In summation, Bell’s most recent output in 2017 based on the total amount of touches he had in addition to history saying he’s more than likely not going to match or exceed those numbers in 2018 makes him a very risky proposition at this point. I’d much rather Bell be another team’s worry in 2019 instead of the Steelers.