Le’Veon Bell is going to get his point across, whether you like it or not.
The All-Pro running back dominated headlines throughout the 2018 calendar year as he first threatened to hold out if he wasn’t awarded a contract extension he felt mirrored his true value to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and then did just that — refusing to sign his $14.5 million franchise tag and instead opting to sit out the entire season while turning away several offers from team ownership he felt were tantamount to lowballing. Reports were that at one point the Steelers offered Bell upwards of $13 million per year, but he hurdled them en route to landing a four-year, $52.5 million contract from the New York Jets in March 2019.
For those following along at home, that’s an average annual salary of $13.13 million — not much higher than the one he refused in Pittsburgh.
In the end, Bell has no regrets about the decision to leave the Steelers behind after a stellar career in Pittsburgh as a second-round pick in 2013. He’s reported to camp and feels so rejuvenated from his time off that he’s made it clear to newly-hired head coach Adam Gase that he’s ready for a 500-touch workload this coming season, and even went as far as fantasy football — on selecting him with their top pick in 2019.who selected him in 2018. His message to them was to simply bet the digital house — or actual house, if that’s their level of commitment to
When asked if he’s a top-three halfback, still, his answer was unequivocal.
“Of course,” Bell said. “I mean, everybody’s going to have an opinion on what type of back they want [but] I believe every [general manager] in this league considers me a top-three running back in the league. I mean, me personally, I feel like I’m the best running back. There’s nothing I can’t do.
“I feel like I’m the best pick-up blocker, hands down. Running routes? I feel like I run routes like a receiver. I literally watched one of the greatest receivers ever run routes for five years in Antonio Brown, and now I get to come out here and watch other guys like [Jamison Crowder] — I only learn.
“I only get better. And reading between the tackles? I don’t think anyone can really understand the way I run between the tackles, and that’s why it looks so different. I understand the plays different from everyone else.
“Everybody can’t do it.”
Considering the competition for that throne, and the fact Bell hasn’t taken a regular season snap since Dec. 2017, his statement is quite bold. In his absence, Ezekiel Elliott has again proven his value to the Cowboys and the league on the whole — landing his second career rushing title in only three years and delivering a career-high 2,001 yards from scrimmage. And then there’s Todd Gurley, who helped propel the Los Angeles Rams to a first-round bye before being slowed by a knee injury, but still delivered 1,831 yards from scrimmage to go along with an eye-popping 21 touchdowns.
And then, of course, there’s the current Rookie of the Year in New York Giants phenom Saquon Barkley.
Bell certainly has the chops to step back into the league after one year off and reascend to toward the top of the hill, as evidenced by his past production with the Steelers. The three-time Pro Bowler racked up 2,215 scrimmage yards in 2014 and set the standard for how dynamic a running back can be when he also possesses skills as a receiver. That’s something the Cowboys never truly figured out for Elliott under longtime — but now departed — offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, but Rams head coach Sean McVay already deploys Gurley in both capacities at will.
With Kellen Moore taking over the Elliott-centric offense for the Cowboys, Gurley having longterm durability concerns, and Bell having not played football in the last 20 months — by the time the 2019 season gets underway — all three will have a lot to prove going forward. This is also assuming Elliott is on the field as he currently wades through a contract holdout in training camp, but when the Cowboys kick things off against the Giants on Sept. 8.
There can be no argument surrounding who the top three backs in the NFL are, at least until Barkley proves he can duplicate his rookie success as the others have, but 2019 will reveal who is truly the king.