2021 Offseason Questions: What Could Have Been If Le’Veon Bell Signed In 2018?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books, and it ended in spectacular fashion—though the wrong kind of spectacular—in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.

Since then, they have lost several players in free agency who were key members of the offense and defense, and multiple starters retired, as well. They made few notable additions in free agency, and are banking on contributions on offense from their rookies, as well as perhaps a last ride for Ben Roethlisberger.

The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions, and right now, they lack answers. They know that they have Roethlisberger for one more year, but was that even the right decision? How successful can Najee Harris be behind a questionable offensive line? What kind of changes can Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm bring to the offense? And how can the defense retain the status quote with the losses of Bud Dupree, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton?

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.

Question: What could the past few years have been like if Le’Veon Bell agreed to the second contract the Steelers offered him in 2018?

Since Le’Veon Bell decided to put this name back out there in the news cycle, and since there isn’t a lot going on this weekend, I thought it might be fun to play the ‘what if’ game for a moment; specifically, what if Bell agreed to the contract the Steelers offered him during the Summer of 2018? How would the team have fared, and how would he have fared, from that point forward with that variable changed?

In reality, he not only declined the team’s offer, he also chose not to participate in the upcoming season, with the alternative having been to play a second consecutive season under the franchise tag. After a year out of football, he signed a deal with the New York Jets that wasn’t dramatically different, and only arguably better, than the one Pittsburgh offered.

He proceeded to have the worst year of his career, gaining just 789 yards on 245 carries, averaging 3.2 yards per, with three touchdowns. Bell would not play a lot in 2020—he would be released and then served rotationally for the Kansas City Chiefs—but his numbers were more efficient, averaging four yards per carry.

Given that he played well in 2017 despite holding out of training camp, and that James Conner had a Pro Bowl year in 2018, I would assume at the least that Bell would have been able to continue to play at a comparable level that year.

With his money on the books, the Steelers likely would not have been able to franchise tag Bud Dupree, however, so he presumably would have left in free agency in 2020 rather than 2021, as one ripple effect of the hypothetical Bell deal. And how would he have adjusted to the decline of play in the offensive line after Mike Munchak left? That’s hard to answer. But I do think he would have had more success if he played the past three seasons in Pittsburgh than he has with the route he chose to take.

He can prove a lot of people wrong if he’s able to return to form this year, as he claims he will. If he’s able to play at a high level in 2021, then it will show, in theory, that there’s no reason he couldn’t have continued to have success in Pittsburgh.

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