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The Packers absolutely should not sign free agent RB Le’Veon Bell in 2019

Why get a slight upgrade at one position when you can improve much more with multiple upgrades for the same amount of money?

The Green Bay Packers continue to see speculation about the team signing free agent running back Le’Veon Bell, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Most recently, beat writer Pete Dougherty said that Bell should be one of the team’s targets in free agency.

Bell sat out the 2018 season because of his demands for a new contract, and he will be a free agent again in 2019. Is he one of the best running backs in the NFL? Yes. Would he make a team better? Almost certainly. But how much would he really improve a team? And would that improvement match up with the amount of money it would cost to get him in the door? Those are the critical questions when looking at signing him, and the answer is simple: he’s not worth the money.


Bell is on the record saying he wants to be paid like a top wide receiver. He refused to play a second straight year on the franchise tag in 2018, a contract that would have paid him $14.544 million, all of it fully guaranteed.

Currently, the biggest long-term contract for a running back belongs to Todd Gurley, who signed an extension before the 2018 season. That deal takes him through 2024, and it went down as a four-year, $57.5 million extension. That equates to $14.375M per year, just under Bell’s tag value. Presumably, Bell would want more in annual compensation than Gurley received, so we’re looking at something around $15M per year for Bell.

In addition, he would almost certainly want a four-year deal at minimum, which brings the total to $60M. Let’s say he gets around $20M in a signing bonus; if for some reason he disappointed massively and the Packers needed to move on after two years, they would take a $10M dead hit on their salary cap in 2021.

Marginal Contributions

As with any signing, it’s not the total production a player brings that determines whether he’s worth his contract to that team. Any team in a salary cap league must evaluate how best to spend its money, prioritizing return on investment. Therefore, given the Packers’ success with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams the past two years, the marginal upgrade Bell would likely provide at running back is not remotely worth the $15M/year investment.

Think about it: if you’re Brian Gutekunst, you can get some potential upgrade to the running back position for that amount of money, or you can use that $15M to upgrade multiple other positions. We’ll examine some better uses of that money shortly; first, let’s examine the upgrade that Bell would provide over Jones and Williams.

Upgrade at Running Back?

Zach Kruse of Packers Wire has been beating this drum for a while now. He did it last season, when Bell was reportedly seeking a trade, by looking at the Packers’ three running backs in 2017: Jones, Williams, and Ty Montgomery. Kruse refenced a tweet by NFL analyst Marcus Mosher, which observed that that trio had the exact same yards per touch average (when combining their numbers) as Bell did that year:

On Monday, he did it again by comparing the two second-year Packers in 2018 to that 2017 season from Bell:

Hey, look at that! Jones and Williams actually performed better on a per-touch basis in 2018 than Bell did in his most recent season. Their yards per carry was almost seven-tenths of a yard higher than Bell’s, thanks in large part to Aaron Jones’ stellar 5.5 mark, which led the NFL.

Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat tells a similar story — the Packers’ rushing attack ranked third in that per-play efficiency stat in both 2017 (+10.6%) and in 2018 (+12.4%), while the 2017 Steelers were sixth with a much less-impressive +3.0% value.

Now let’s look a bit closer at the individual players’ advanced numbers, both DVOA and DYAR (which is the total production corollary to DVOA). Note that DYAR fluctuates based on usage, so the fact that the Packers ran the ball fewer than any other team in the NFL will depress their running backs’ rushing DYAR numbers.

  • 2018 Jones: 16.9% rushing DVOA, 145 rushing DYAR; 2.2% receiving DVOA, 33 receiving DYAR
  • 2018 Williams: 1.7% rushing DVOA, 51 rushing DYAR; -9.3% receiving DVOA, 11 receiving DYAR
  • 2018 Total: 196 rushing DYAR, 44 receiving DYAR, 240 total DYAR
  • 2017 Bell: 7.9% rushing DVOA, 214 rushing DYAR; 2.5% receiving DVOA, 101 receiving DYAR; 315 total DYAR

Now, a 75 DYAR difference is notable, but that comes on 99 fewer touches than Bell had. Also note that the biggest difference comes in receiving production. How about adding a proven receiving back like Tevin Coleman for around $5M per year? That number is Spotrac’s estimate of his market value, and signing him could give the Packers tons of flexibility in the backfield, allowing them to roll out a three-headed monster to play the matchups and saving the team $10M annually compared to signing Bell. As an added bonus here: Coleman and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur are plenty familiar with one another, since they were together for two years with the Falcons.

Plus, when looking at per-play efficiency, Jones was better in ‘18 — admittedly on a smaller sample size — than Bell was the year before. Can we find improvements of 75 DYAR for cheaper than $15M? Most definitely, and we’ll do so shortly.

Steelers’ RBs

Let’s take the Bell analysis even farther and look at the dropoff (or lack thereof) from Bell to the Steelers’ 2018 running backs, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. There is a common refrain among a certain sect of NFL analysts, that running backs are fungible assets, and that is borne out by several situations in 2018.

Take the Los Angeles Rams, for example. When Todd Gurley was injured late in the season, they plucked C.J. Anderson off the street and had essentially no drop in production from the position. The dropoff from Bell to the tandem of Conner and Samuels — a 2017 third-round draft pick and a 2018 fifth-rounder, respectively — was also minimal:

271 carries, 1,229 yards (4.53 YPC), 12 TDs; 81 receptions, 696 yards (8.59 YPR), 4 TDs
Total yards per touch: 5.46

The Steelers got better per-carry averages (4.53 to 4.02) and better per-reception averages (8.59 to 7.71) with Conner and Samuels in 2018 than Bell had in 2017, demonstrating that they were in all likelihood better off with Bell refusing to play. The advanced stats are a little different, but they make the two options seem nicely comparable, regardless of whether you’re looking at per-play efficiency (DVOA) or total cumulative production (DYAR):

  • 2018 Conner: 2.4% rushing DVOA, 100 rushing DYAR; 15.2% receiving DVOA, 112 receiving DYAR
  • 2018 Samuels: -1.2% DVOA, 17 rushing DYAR; 36.4% receiving DVOA, 79 receiving DYAR
  • 2018 Total: 117 rushing, 191 receiving (308 total DYAR)
  • 2017 Bell: 7.9% rushing DVOA, 214 rushing DYAR; 2.5% receiving DVOA, 101 receiving DYAR; 315 total DYAR

That’s almost the exact same total production from the Steelers’ two running backs in 2018 as Bell had the year before, with those backs providing much more as receivers — which is typically one of the hallmarks of the arguments in Bell’s favor.

Other Investments

It’s too early to tell exactly who will be available on the free agent market this season, but it’s a good bet that a team could get a much better bang for their buck at other positions.

Take slot receiver, for example. In 2018, Randall Cobb was bad — he had had negative-45 DYAR on 61 targets. Now, I don’t mean to throw more gasoline on the Cole Beasley fire that has been raging recently, but he would have been a huge upgrade over Cobb last season. Beasley had a round 100 DYAR on 87 targets, and adjusting that total down for the difference in targets puts him at an even 70. Swapping him in for Cobb would represent a net gain of 115 DYAR, and he could come with a price tag around $5 million/year. The difference in production between Bell and the Packers’ current running backs is more than accounted for at a third of the price.

This is just an example, of course, and it relies on projecting DYAR values from prior seasons forward. However, it does help illustrate just see how small of an upgrade Bell would likely provide over the Packers’ runners.

It’s not as easy to quantify the impact of adding an offensive lineman or a pass-rusher, since there is no DYAR or DVOA for those positions, but those spots would almost assuredly provide a better bang for the buck than signing Bell. Even the top free agent guards will likely max out around $8 million per year.

How about using $15 million to try to sign a pass-rusher like Dee Ford instead? That number would put him right around the top ten highest-paid edge rushers, a good spot for him. Is there any argument that the marginal upgrade from Jones/Williams to Bell would be greater than going from Clay Matthews/Reggie Gilbert to Ford? Going after a second-tier player like Dante Fowler or Preston Smith could be an excellent alternative as well, and they would take up less cap space.

Gutekunst could alternately use this cap space on a safety. Landon Collins ($9.3M/year market value, per Spotrac) or Earl Thomas (likely to get around the same) would provide instant playmaking ability in the Packers’ secondary. Tyrann Mathieu could do the same if he sees the Packers as an immediate contender. If you’re intent on signing a free agent running back, pair Tevin Coleman with one of these safeties to upgrade two positions for the price of one.

There are numerous ways that the Packers could use the money that Le’Veon Bell would demand to improve their team. It’s easy to imagine any number of scenarios which would cost the same or less than Bell and should lead to a much bigger marginal impact than what Bell would provide on his own.

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