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You May Have Forgotten How Good Le’Veon Bell Is

Jets fans may have some sticker shock after the team handed a big deal to a running back, but the former Steeler could be just what Sam Darnold and the New York offense need to take a big jump in 2019

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Browns’ blockbuster trade for Odell Beckham Jr. on Tuesday evening overshadowed the most anticipated signing of the NFL’s thrilling free-agency period. Shortly after the Beckham deal was reported, the Jets won the Le’Veon Bell sweepstakes, locking up the dynamic running back with a four-year deal worth up to $61 million, with $35 million guaranteed. And while much of the immediate discussion centered on whether Bell’s year-long holdout was ultimately worthwhile, less attention was paid to the impact the former Steeler can have on the Jets offense and its still-developing quarterback, Sam Darnold. As Beckham does for Baker Mayfield, Bell brings the ability to instantly make Darnold’s job easier, taking pressure off of the sophomore passer with his rare ability to tilt the field in both the run and pass game. The Jets still have a ways to go to build a contender, but the Bell signing is a big step toward giving the 21-year-old Darnold the type of supporting cast he needs.

It’s been more than a year since we’ve last seen him on the field, so it’s easy to forget that Bell is a transcendent talent and playmaker. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound back has a unique style as a runner, mixing extraordinary patience with speed, power, decisiveness, and explosive burst through the hole. Bell’s idiosyncratic hesitation behind the line of scrimmage would typically be billed as a negative at the position, but his ability to decipher the running lanes opening up in front of him in real time is what separates him from so many other rushers. It’s almost like he’s timing his jump into double dutch, and when he sees his moment, he makes his move.

That vision and understanding of how the defense is flowing in relation to his blocking helps not just at the line of scrimmage, but at the second level, too.

Assuming he reports to camp this fall in game shape, Bell is more than just a reliable volume runner who can bring stability to a New York backfield that’s seen a different leading rusher in each of the past four seasons and is now being helmed by a new coach in Adam Gase. More importantly, the 27-year-old brings to the Jets ground game his distinctive ability to create something out of nothing. He’s powerful and elusive, and regularly ranked among the league leaders in both yards after contact and missed tackles forced in his time in Pittsburgh. Bell has broken 290 tackles on 1,631 career touches, per Pro Football Focus—and ranks third in the NFL in missed tackles forced on runs (214) since he came into the league in 2013. That’s pretty incredible considering he didn’t play at all last year, and missed 10 games in 2015, four games in 2016, and a game in 2017.

But running backs in the modern era can’t live up to big-money deals on their running ability alone, and Bell is a major factor in the passing attack. Bell is perhaps the most dynamic pass-catching running back of this generation, a natural route-runner with the ball skills of a receiver and extraordinary run-after-the-catch elusiveness. Bell leads the NFL in yards after the catch at the running back position since 2014—again, that’s after missing 31 of a possible 80 games in that timeframe. Bell has soft hands and the instincts to make the first tackler miss, something seen on this play from the 2017 season:

Bell is a massive upgrade as a runner over both Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell, and is much more dynamic in the passing game than either. He gives Darnold a big-play creator even on simple dump-offs—which are typically thought of in a negative light, but will likely still be a big part of Darnold’s repertoire in 2019. According to ESPN, Darnold finished last in the NFL in completion percentage (62.9) on throws between 1 and 10 yards downfield as a rookie, but Bell’s ability to create mismatches in the passing game in that area is where he could make a major impact. Defenses must now decide how they’re going to line up against New York: Do they bring in a safety or corner to help keep up with Bell and weaken their run defense? Or do they simply match up with a linebacker and take their chances in coverage? Bell’s left a long line of linebackers in the dust on two-way go routes up the middle in his career.

Bell on a football field is like a queen on a chessboard. He’s one of only a few backs capable of lining up on the wing, running vertical routes, and elevating to catch deep passes like this:

Bell’s price tag certainly comes as a shock for some—especially in a league that’s seen most running backs relegated to fungible status. In an already-good offense with an established quarterback, this deal wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense; but for New York, Bell’s ability to create for himself in both the passing attack and the run game could make him worth the investment. With Darnold locked into his rookie deal, New York can afford the luxury of paying top dollar to add a security blanket for the still-developing signal-caller. Combined with deals for offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, slot receiver Jamison Crowder, and the long-term extension for Quincy Enunwa, the Jets offense—which ranked 28th in pass DVOA and 30th in rush DVOA last year—appears to be moving in the right direction. Bell could be at the center of a big jump in 2019.