Having failed to come to terms on a long-term contract with Bell during the summer, the Steelers, for the second straight season, placed the franchise tag on him, meaning he was set to make $14.544 million on a one-year deal. Apparently with an eye toward keeping himself as healthy as possible for next year, when Bell expects to make huge money in free agency, he has been holding out, and now that his absence has extended into the regular season, it’s costing him more than $850,000 each week.
It doesn’t appear that Bell is going to show up in Week 2, and, especially given that he doesn’t seem to mind upsetting his teammates, there is good reason to think that he won’t do so until Week 11, when he must report in order to ultimately reach free agency at the end of the season. It’s not even out of the question that he skips this season altogether, in effect daring the Steelers to franchise him again at the same amount and go through the same melodrama for another year.
Or, as some think is likely, he could be back in, say, a couple of weeks, having sat out the first month. So … yeah, tons of uncertainty, and that’s before getting to the fact that backup RB James Conner looked great in Week 1, racking up 192 total yards and two touchdowns on a huge, Bell-esque workload.
Obviously, the Bell owners who also have Conner are in a solid position and don’t have much about which to worry, except perhaps the possibility of a timeshare if/when Bell returns. For the owners who don’t have Conner, though, the best option is to seek out that player’s owner and try to work something out.
A glance at the rest-of-season rankings at ESPN, CBS Sports, and Fantasy Pros indicates that Bell is still generally considered a high-end RB2, whereas Conner is more in RB2/3 territory. So by that logic, a Bell owner trying to trade for Conner should have to give up less than if the situation were reversed, but it would presumably still have to be a hefty price, especially if the Bell owner is in dire straits at the RB position.
In that case, the Conner owner should hold out for at least a WR2 in return, or the equivalent, with someone like Allen Robinson coming to mind (trading away Amari Cooper might even kill two birds with one stone, given the glaring questions surrounding the Raider’s production). The Conner owner looking to get a lock on the Steelers’ backfield should be expected to pay a prettier penny for Bell, at least in theory.
Personally, though, if I had Conner but not Bell, I wouldn’t be in any great hurry to make a trade. Or to put it another way, I’d lowball the Bell owner and be perfectly happy not to weaken my roster elsewhere. After all, Conner is set up well to deliver fantastic value at a presumably low acquisition cost, so why not just enjoy the ride, however long it lasts?
By the same token, if I’m a Bell owner, I’m looking to move him while he still has that high-RB2/low-RB1 cachet. That’s because, at this point, there’s really only one scenario in which holding onto him is worth it: he comes back soon, immediately gets his customary workload and does well with it.
Leaving aside my suspicion that his holdout could last well into November, let’s recall the slow start Bell had last year, when he skipped training camp and showed up just before Week 1. He posted just 7.7 points in Week 1 (and that’s using PPR scoring) and 13.1 in Week 2 before scoring 21.8 in Week 3 and fully breaking out after that. Of course, that took place during Conner’s rookie season, when he was coming off a college career at Pitt interrupted by cancer treatments and was used very lightly in his first season with the Steelers.
Now that Conner has played very well in preseason games and through Week 1, it could be tricky for the Steelers to just shunt him back to the bench when Bell returns, as happened with DeAngelo Williams in 2016. Much as the Steelers might be tempted to ride Bell as hard as they can before waving goodbye in free agency — a scenario he is almost certainly trying to avoid with his holdout — Conner figures to have earned at least some ongoing usage. Rewarding Conner’s hard work would likely also play well in the locker room, a factor Coach Mike Tomlin would be well-advised to consider.
Thus it makes sense for Bell owners to, well, maybe it’s too late to sell high, but it’s not too late to get a good a return for him and salvage something from an unappealing situation. (Full disclosure: I might just be saying that because I was among those scarred by owning David Johnson last year and holding on to him way too long in the hope that he would eventually return from his wrist injury. Lord, that was maddening.)
The first priority for most Bell owners (again, assuming they don’t have Conner) should be to get as good of an RB as possible in exchange for him, unless they are fortunate enough to have excellent depth at that position. I’d start by seeing if I could pry away Kareem Hunt or Dalvin Cook, high-end RBs who may have disappointed their owners with their Week 1 showings. If it takes another asset, such as a WR3 or some such, to make it happen, so be it, as long as the roster depth is solid there.
Moving down the list, RBs who could fit the bill include Alex Collins, Lamar Miller or either of the Freemans (Royce and Devonta, although the latter’s knee injury needs to be monitored). Alternatively, given the depth at WR, a relatively high-end player at that position could conceivably be had in return.
The point is, the scenarios in which Bell pays off big are outweighed by those in which he doesn’t, and he could just be a roster albatross all season, or long enough to severely damage owners’ playoff hopes. Meanwhile, every week that goes by without him lowers his value, so it makes sense for his owners to cut their losses now.
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