OTAs have now come and gone and just like last offseason, there was one notable absence in the Pittsburgh Steelers camp. Running back Le’Veon Bell chose not to attend as he rides out the uncertainty revolving around his franchise tag designation. Unless the Steelers and Bell come to a new contract agreement by the middle of July, it is likely that the running back will remain incognito from the team for a while longer.
Bell’s absence has allowed the media and fanbase to question and analyze every angle of his unique contract situation. It is not only Bell’s contract demands that are unique to his position but also his immense workload and finding middle ground where Bell’s worth equals the risk. While the running back has totaled over 5300 rushing yards in his career, he is now entering his age 26 season and coming off a year in which he had 321 carries while averaging just four yards per carry.
Bell’s age, workload and decreasing production last season leaves the team in a bind for how to approach his demands. Luckily, there is some historical precedent as there have been 22 running backs aged 26 or younger who have amassed 320 or more carries while rushing for four yards or less in a season. Using these running backs could give a quick estimate on if there is cause for concern for Bell, a 26-year old running back who posted his worst yards per carry average since his 2013 rookie season.
*When looking at future production, running back Ricky Williams was omitted from the data due to his retirement in 2004, bringing us to 21 total running backs.*
Out of these 21 running backs who posted an identical stat line to Bell’s 2017 campaign, nine failed to improve their yards per carry mark, also meaning that these running backs failed to break four yards per carry in back to back seasons. Of those nine running backs, six were in either their age 25 or 26 season, which Bell will be approaching this season.
When looking at average rushing yards per game, the production drop off impacted more than half of the 21 running backs studied. From the group of 21, 13 saw a drop in their average rushing yards per game.
This study is still no perfect indicator of Bell’s career trajectory as many of the running backs studied managed to bounce back from their subpar, heavy workload seasons. These bounce back running backs include names like Curtis Martin, LaDainian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis. Also, Bell is perhaps one of the better receiving options out of the backfield in NFL history, giving him another leg up on the competition than these 21 running backs.
From a straight rushing perspective, it is easy to paint doubt against Bell’s ability to provide excellent production due to his workload and increasing age but his contract situation is much trickier than that. As the July 16 deadline for franchise tagged players to sign a long-term deal approaches, it will be interesting to see if there is any new development between the Steelers and Bell.