The NFL season ended a little over a week ago at the conclusion of Super Bowl LIII and that only means one thing: six months filled with useless mock drafts and plenty of childish drama.
The ambiguous tweets and Instagram posts from soon-to-be free agents have already started while teams and media outlets continue to stir the pot with the customary eyeball emoji. Just like many of you, I am fed up with the social media culture that surrounds professional athletes. 99% of the time these social media antics mean absolutely nothing but it does give major networks an excuse to cover the NFL year round.
As far as NFL drama goes, there should only be one team that comes to mind right now – the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a Ravens fan, watching the fallout in the steel city following the 2018 season has been better than any comedy I have ever seen in my life. Even after the Ravens made an early exit from the postseason, I was quickly brought back down to earth by the salty yinzers complaining about Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, and Mike Tomlin.
We can only hope that the Steelers are on the ropes at this point. Their offensive core led by the “Killer B’s” is on the verge of completely dismantling and all they have to show for it is three playoff wins and a trip to the AFC championship. As heartbreaking as some of these recent Ravens seasons have been, at least they weren’t wasting the prime years of some of the top offensive weapons in the league.
Bell, who was at the center of a lot of the Pittsburgh drama this past year, is about to enter his first off-season as a free agent. After playing out his four-year rookie contract Bell was franchise tagged in 2017 and 2018. Unsurprisingly this did not sit well with the star running back, who was considered by many to be the best at his position. He proceeded to hold out until he received a contract he felt he deserved but that never happened and Bell ended up not playing in 2018. That brings us to right now where the entire football world is wondering which team will open up their check book and make a huge free agency splash by adding Bell.
There are a lot of teams that would be a good fit for Bell and the Baltimore Ravens are finding themselves at the forefront of that discussion. You can thank the fine people over at the NFL Network for bringing this up but let’s be honest, you probably didn’t hear about it until Bell dropped the emoji heard around the world on Twitter and a few Ravens players acknowledged him.
I usually scoff at these pointless rumors and proposals. They make little sense but attract a lot of attention because of who the player is or even sometimes, who the player once was. Well there is something different about the Bell rumors, if you even want to call them that. I can’t brush it off like I have in the past. Is it crazy to think that Bell would be not just a good signing, but a great one for the Ravens? Something is telling me no.
Why go after Bell?
It may seem obvious to say that Bell would fit in well on the Ravens current offense but it’s necessary to mention if we are going to have this discussion. You all know the current situation. After switching quarterbacks at the bye week in 2018, the Ravens managed to turn a stagnant running game into one of the most dominant in the NFL. They ended up finishing the season with the most rushing attempts and the second most rushing yards in the league. The emergence of Lamar Jackson and the read option style offense was the leading factor toward this improvement but the production that the Ravens got out of Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon should not to be overlooked either.
Take a look at the other teams who had a similar amount of success on the ground last year. I’m talking about the Seahawks, Rams, Panthers and Patriots. Three of them have drafted a running back with their first round pick in the last two years and the fourth is the Rams who have Todd Gurley. The Ravens are an outlier among this top five. Their leading rusher, Edwards, is an undrafted rookie and only started six games in 2018.
Going into 2019 and beyond, those four previously mentioned teams have a true No.1 rusher already locked in. The Ravens on the other hand have some decisions to make regarding the personnel in their run game.
First and foremost you have to wonder whether or not Edwards can build on his impressive rookie season by becoming the go-to guy in 2019. Many fans, including myself, thought this would be the case with Alex Collins coming into 2018 but that quickly fizzled out. I hope this does not repeat with Edwards but if it does who else will the Ravens have to turn to? Dixon currently sits in that No. 2 spot but he has only appeared in 18 games since being drafted in 2016 due to a variety of injuries and a suspensions. The former fourth-round pick is coming off a very good six game stretch but is still not even close to being considered reliable.
Unless the Ravens find a running back they really like in the first few rounds of the draft, they will enter 2019 leaning heavily on Edwards. I don’t think that is very encouraging especially when the Ravens will have a higher reliance on their run game than almost every other offense in the league. Let’s go back to those other four top rushing teams again. All four have Super Bowl quarterbacks who can put up 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns a season. Simply put, none of them have a dependence on the run game like the Ravens do.
Does this automatically mean the Ravens have to be big spenders in free agency and sign Bell? Absolutely not, but let’s take a look at some of the other free agent options going into 2019. There are not many prominent names under the age of 28 and among those you will find the controversial Kareem Hunt, the recently injured Jay Ajayi, and T.J. Yeldon, who gave up on his team in week 17 by voluntarily removing himself from the game.
In all seriousness, there are plenty of other names on this list that I could honestly see the Ravens perusing. Guys like Tevin Coleman and Mike Davis stand out to me right now but there is no guarantee that they will even hit the open market as their current teams could make a strong effort to retain them. Take a look at this list if you want an idea of some of the other options that could be out there.
I wanted to mention these other free agents because the Ravens certainly do not need Bell. However, they do need to make some sort of addition at the running back position going into 2019. Why not make it one of the best offensive weapons in the league?
What does Bell bring to the table?
Take a minute to imagine what it would be like seeing Bell wear the purple and black. Just like when Jackson was drafted last year, the buzz around Baltimore would be recognized on a national level. Between Jackson’s emergence and a division title, the Ravens are likely already on their way back into the spotlight and I expect them to be playing in prime time on a few occasions next season. Bell would only add to this push but personally I care more about the way he plays, not what kind of attention he draws.
The two-time all-pro has rushed for over 1,200 yards in three seasons while averaging about 245 carries per year. We all know about the patience that he runs with. It has been repeated to us over and over again but it gets mentioned so much because it clearly works for him. Bell has consistently given opposing defenses a rough time with this routine so it comes as no surprise that he is averaging 4.2 yards a carry in his career and has topped out at 4.9 yards a carry in 2015 and 2016.
What helps make Bell more worthy of a large payday is his ability to be a major contributor in the pass game. The rushing numbers are impressive on their own but when you add over 530 receiving yards a year and 8.5 yards per catch, you have a true dual threat that other teams can only hope to game plan for.
As successful as Edwards and Dixon were down the stretch, both of them never really shined in the pass game. Having a running back capable of catching passes out of the backfield is exactly what Jackson needs as a quarterback right now. I think you would see big improvements in his passing game and the offense as a whole if they can snag Bell or a similar style player.
There is one last thing that has to be mentioned in support of signing Bell. You already know that there would be no one more excited in that Ravens locker room when those two games against Pittsburgh roll around than Bell. The way Bell left that organization has surely left a bad taste in his mouth. He wants nothing more than to get back at the Steelers for slapping him in the face with two straight franchise tags as well as the fan base who burned his jersey. I think it could be similar to the way Steve Smith left Carolina. The Ravens benefited greatly from that fallout in 2014 but that was just one game. Bell would be playing his former team at least twice a season for years to come. If the thought of Bell torching the Steelers defense at Heinz Field in a prime time game doesn’t put an evil smile on your face, I don’t know what will.
Can you believe a grown man took to time to do this?
Is it worth it?
I think it’s important to acknowledge the strengths of Bell and what he provides first because this conversation completely hinges on Bell’s value as a player. We know what he can bring to the table and we know what he could add to the Ravens. Now we have to decide if all that is worth the hefty cost he will likely command.
Don’t confuse my appreciation for Bell’s talent as a call for the Ravens to drop everything and sign him. I find myself on the fence when it comes to this topic, which is a big reason why I decided to write this piece in the first place. There are a lot of reasons to say yes or no to signing Bell but at the end of the day the financial side of things will be the most important factor to consider.
Let’s start with the fact that the Ravens are on the verge of getting out from under Joe Flacco’s massive contract and finally freeing themselves up to make more off-season moves. Do you really want to turn around and put that money back into one player’s contract? I can safely say that Bell would be a better player and a better value for the Ravens than Flacco was but at a certain point these large contracts are crippling no matter who the player is.
I also have a hard time seeing Eric DeCosta committing such a large sum of money to one player. DeCosta is in a very unique situation as a new general manager where he is not only inheriting a competitive team, but a team with a good amount of flexibility. There are needs scattered all over the place as usual but for the first time in a while, the Ravens may be in a position to address more of them and hopefully build upon the playoff team they fielded last year.
Signing Bell would unquestionably make the Ravens a better offense but it would also significantly hurt their chances of adding other essential offensive pieces like receivers and lineman. I think we all know which one of these positions the Ravens draft better but there is never a guarantee that you will fill your needs in the draft, making free agency a necessary route when it comes to adding depth. After all, what good is a top-tier running back if you don’t have anybody half decent to block for him?
That’s just the offensive side of the ball though. Meanwhile the Ravens top prospective free agents and biggest contracts are on defensive. C.J. Mosley should absolutely be the top priority at this time but if the Ravens want to seriously pursue Bell they will probably have to give up on the idea of retaining their star middle linebacker.
Even if they somehow take on both of those contracts, you are going to have to find a way to subtract elsewhere. The money cleared up from either trading or dropping Flacco will simply not be enough. Eric Weddle and Jimmy Smith are the next names to come up mainly due to the way their contracts are structured. Say what you want about Weddle’s dwindling production and Smith’s inability to put together a full 16-game season. Are you willing to lose two starters from your top-ranked defense just so you can squeak Bell in under the cap?
Let’s say the Ravens do manage to bring Bell in as their new running back. If he were to get injured, either week-to-week or worse, the Ravens season would be in serious jeopardy. You would be putting all your eggs in one basket by signing Bell to a big contract and if he goes down you don’t have enough depth or other offensive talent to make up for it. This is probably the biggest issue I would have with adding Bell. I could justify some of the cuts listed above, but going all in on a player like Bell, who does have an injury history, is not easy to defend.
The final verdict
I went into this unsure about what I think the Ravens should do but eager to have the discussion. After researching all of this and writing it, I still lean toward not signing him because of the financial implications. However, I think this is a debate that should be entertained by fans. I would at least like to see the Ravens bring Bell in for a formal meeting. The least you can do is gauge his interest face-to-face instead of going off of tweets, which could be nothing more than a joke to Bell for all we know.
Let him talk with DeCosta, John Harbaugh, Greg Roman, and some of the players. We have seen the Ravens have success recruiting free agents in the past through these castle visits. If he does in fact have a strong interest in joining the Ravens new run-focused offense, then you can go from there.
Image credit: Matt Freed / Post-Gazette