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Le’Veon Bell Could Be the Next Jets Free Agent Disaster—or Their Offensive Savior

New York bucked conventional wisdom by paying big money to a free agent running back this offseason. Could the team look smart in the end, or is this the same old Jets?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Giants. The Jets. Two teams in transition, fighting for one city … despite both playing, practicing, and operating in a different state altogether. In one corner: a roster with Eli Manning, Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, and a noted lack of Odell Beckham Jr. In the other: a squad with Le’Veon Bell, Adam Gase, and a quarterback with the best jawline in football. On Thursday, The Ringer is breaking down the state of the NFL in New York City—and the players, personalities, and memes that define its marquee franchises.

“Chess is a lot like life,” Curtis Martin tells Le’Veon Bell over a chessboard in the team video series One Jets Drive. “You can make one move that hurts you in the long run. It seems like the right move right now but if you haven’t thought about your second or third move it can penalize you in due time.”

Martin and Bell, the past and present of Jets star running backs, were discussing how chess is analogous to rushing, but Martin’s quote could also describe the Jets’ signing of Bell this offseason. Spending money to surround Sam Darnold with skill players seemed like the right decision at the time, but the Jets didn’t have any subsequent moves planned out. The team fired general manager Mike Maccagnan in May, two months after he gave out a record amount of guaranteed money in free agency. That included Bell’s contract, which will guarantee him $27 million in its first two years. Bell is not the centerpiece of the Jets’ chessboard. That title belongs to 2018 no. 3 draft pick Sam Darnold. But Bell is the best weather vane for where the Darnold era is going and whether the organization has a plan. We’ll see whether they are penalized for signing him to such a large deal in due time.

Bell’s signing was not exactly a surprise. The Jets were reportedly interested in trading for Bell last September at the beginning of the running back’s impasse with the Steelers and were the betting favorite to land him by November. What was surprising was when Jets CEO Christopher Johnson fired Maccagnan after his spending spree. Head coach Adam Gase didn’t want to sign Bell in free agency because of his price tag, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. The reasons for Gase’s reluctance mirror the arguments of many of football’s wisest observers, and are familiar to any New Yorker who has followed the debate around the Giants’ decision to pick Saquon Barkley at no. 2 in 2018. Running backs are replaceable and have short careers. They depend on their offensive lines to succeed. NFL rosters typically reflect this reality. Only kickers and punters earn less money on average than running backs. Multiple cheap backs plus cap space are more valuable than one talented but expensive runner. Passing is more efficient, and in 2018 the NFL featured the fewest rushes per team per game on record, which goes back to 1932. Rushing is a smaller part of offenses than ever, and the individual runner is less important to the team’s overall rushing success than in the past. At 27 years old and already suffering groin and knee injuries, Bell is teetering on the edge of when many great running backs have fallen off a cliff. So of course the Jets eschewed all of this modern wisdom and handed Bell the second-largest contract for a back in the league.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision this going wrong. Bell suffered a Lisfranc injury in his right foot his rookie year in 2013, hyperextended his right knee in 2014, tore his MCL and PCL in his right knee in 2015, injured his groin in January 2017, and then sat out the entire 2018 season for fear of getting injured while playing on the franchise tag. Even if Bell stays healthy, his success with the Steelers came while he was surrounded by talent. He had a veteran quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, some of the league’s best skill players like Antonio Brown, and one of the league’s best offensive lines with center Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster. The Jets provide the opposite: Darnold is a young quarterback, the Jets don’t have anyone in their receiving corp on par with Antonio Brown (or even JuJu Smith-Schuster), and they have a below-average offensive line. That last part may be the biggest impediment to Bell’s success this year.

Bell’s signature running style—patiently allowing blocks to develop and then seeing holes other running backs don’t—may not translate to a team with a lesser line that can’t create space for him. Not only was Pittsburgh’s line good, but it was also remarkably stable. From when Bell was drafted in 2013 to his last season playing for the Steelers in 2017, Pittsburgh right guard DeCastro played in 78 of 80 games and left guard Foster appeared in 73 of 80 games. Pouncey missed most of Bell’s rookie season in 2013 and the whole 2015 season but played in 46 of 48 games in 2014, 2016, and 2017. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert played 57 of 64 games from 2013 to 2016, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva didn’t miss a game from 2015 to 2017. That’s a remarkably consistent stretch for any unit, and it allowed the line to be one of the most successful in the league, partially by holding their blocks longer than most to accommodate Bell’s patient style. It’s not a coincidence that from 2013 to 2017 Bell had 7,996 yards from scrimmage, the second most in the league in that span and just 20 yards fewer than league-leader LeSean McCoy despite Bell playing 13 fewer games.

Meanwhile, all five members of the Jets’ projected starting offensive line for 2019 didn’t practice together until Tuesday. Every spot along the Jets’ line is less talented than their counterparts in Pittsburgh. Center Ryan Kalil was brought out of retirement on August 1. Guard Kelechi Osemele was an All-Pro for Oakland in 2016 but was sapped by injuries to the point where the Raiders unloaded him and the no. 196 pick to the Jets for the no. 140 pick. Starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum is the smallest in the league at 6′3″ and 308 pounds. Of the 64 tackles who played 500 snaps last season, right tackle Brandon Shell was graded 50th by Pro Football Focus. Bell’s a great chess player, but you can only do so much when your pieces can’t control your side of the board.

If the Bell signing goes wrong, it won’t be in the same category of the Jets’ finest disasters, like losing Bill Belichick to the Patriots, firing Pete Carroll after one season, or passing on Dan Marino. But it could definitely join the class of recent Jets mistakes that seemed like mistakes in the moment, like signing 30-year-old Darrelle Revis to a contract with $39 million guaranteed for a second stint with the team, drafting Christian Hackenberg in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft, and signing former Steeler Santonio Holmes to a five-year deal with $24 million guaranteed after Pittsburgh gave him away for a fifth-round pick.

Of course, the most obvious Jets move that seemed like a mistake at the time was trading for Brett Favre, and that worked out surprisingly well. There’s certainly a chance the Bell signing could work similarly and spectacularly, with Bell rejuvenated after a year off the grind of the season and able to provide an elite safety valve for Darnold. The Jets receiving corps of Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder, Quincy Enunwa, and tight end Chris Herndon are among the most underrated in the league, and if they’re healthy, they could take a serious step forward and contribute to a big year for Darnold’s development. A better Jets pass offense could mean defenses won’t be able to overcommit to stopping Bell. And if he plays all 16 games, he’s a decent bet to win the rushing title at 12-1 odds.

Even if Bell’s season does not go well, the Jets aren’t married to him. The four-year, $52.5 million deal he signed is in truth a two-year deal guaranteed for $27 million followed by two team options for $11.5 million and then $13 million in 2021 and 2022. The Jets had a substantial amount of cap space and were going to need to spend it somewhere. Plus, betting on Bell is not even the flashiest free agent move they made this offseason. That would be inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, whom the Jets gave $43 million guaranteed at signing for a position many teams prefer to bargain hunt on. The five-year deal with $34 million guaranteed at signing the team gave to cornerback Trumaine Johnson last year already looks worse than the worst-case scenario for the deals for Mosley or Bell.

Bell’s position, age, and injury history make him more of a risk than typical free agent signings. The downgrade of playing behind the Jets’ offensive line gives him an uphill battle to reach the same heights he did in Pittsburgh. Bell could overcome those obstacles and still succeed in New York. But if that patient running style doesn’t work in New York, Jets fans may be the ones running Bell out of town when they lose patience.