Gabriel: Bears Should Steer Clear Of Le'Veon Bell

The salary Bell is seeking would constrain the Bears in other important areas.

Greg Gabriel
March 08, 2019 - 12:59 pm
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(670 The Score) One of the Bears' biggest needs this offseason is to acquire a running back who's a strong fit in coach Matt Nagy’s offense.

That's because the expectation is that Jordan Howard will be out as the Bears' feature back. The Bears are entertaining trade offers on Howard, according to ESPN, after he had a disappointing 2018.

Howard doesn't have much trade value, and the Bears will be lucky to get a fourth-rounder for him. It's more likely that they'd land a fifth- or sixth-round selection. Some league insiders even feel that the reported trade interest in Howard is overstated, believing it was planted by the Bears to generate more offers. 

If the Bears don’t trade Howard, they can just cut him in a few weeks. Either way, the question will remain: How do the Bears fill their void at running back?

The most high-profile running back on the free-agent market is Le'Veon Bell, who sat out the entire 2018 season with the Steelers. Some believe the Bears should make a run at him.

My answer to that would be a resounding no.

There's no doubt Bell, 27, would help the Bears tremendously and be an ideal fit in the offense. The trouble is I don't believe the Bears can afford his asking price, given their other needs.

Bell walked away from his franchise tender and $14.5 million in 2018. He's going to want to make up for that loss in his new contract. 

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The Bears have just more than $18 million in salary cap space, according to Over the Cap. Bell is probably going to want a deal that's four or five years long at lucrative annual salaries, and we know paying running backs at his age often isn't prudent. 

That's because running backs have a short shelf life in their career. Bell has already logged a combined 1,635 carries and catches in his career when including the regular season and postseason. He has taken a lot of punishment with that number of touches.

The team that signs Bell is going to have him on the books for several years. In order for his contract to work out, Bell has to be productive over that duration. Often, that doesn't go well.

As an example, LeSean McCoy was known as one of the best and most durable running backs in the NFL during his first six seasons, which were spent in Philadelphia. He was then traded from the Eagles to the Bills ahead of the 2015 season. While he has had some quality seasons in Buffalo, his production hasn't been commensurate to his salary. 

McCoy's best season in Buffalo came when he rushed for 1,267 yards in 2016, but he has twice failed to reach the 900-yard mark in two of his four seasons. He rushed for just 514 yards but cost the Bills around $9 million in cap space in 2018.

Bell is seeking much more than that on an annual basis. Moving forward, the Bears have to be careful in how they deal with their cap. With Khalil Mack signed to a record contract for a defensive player, the days of Chicago having huge cap space in the offseason are over. There are some key young players -- such as safety Eddie Jackson -- who figure to command significant money on their second contracts down the line, so the Bears have to be wise on whom and how they spend their money in 2019.

Signing a player with the contract demands of Bell wouldn't just affect 2019 but several years beyond that. That isn't a wise way to manage the salary cap.

Anything can happen, but I doubt that the Bears will go in Bell's direction next week. I believe it's likely they will look to upgrade the running back position in the draft. If there's a solid veteran available in free agency whom they can sign at a reasonable price before then, they may also do that.

The Bears' first priority needs to be re-signing nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan and/or safety Adrian Amos before they commit money to a running back. That would be far more prudent.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.