If Bell makes an impact this season, it will come in a different uniform. What kind of impact that would be remains an open question. Bell and the Steelers are in this position primarily because Bell decided he wanted to enter free agency without having taken a season’s worth of punishment. A contender would have to decide whether that attitude is compatible with a winning team. Even if a team convinced itself that Bell would pose no chemistry issues, there would be on-field challenges, even putting aside Bell’s absence from practice all summer. His patient, flowing running style makes him unique, but it also makes him a difficult player to implement midseason. The way he sets up blocks would force teammates to adjust.
There’s also the money issue: Any team trying to trade for Bell would have to maneuver around the salary cap.
Bell’s talent, however, makes those risks worthwhile for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. Someone is going to take a chance on a player who gained 1,946 yards from scrimmage in 15 games last year. The most compelling question in the NFL right now is this: Who?
Here are the four teams who should try, in descending order.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Maybe Bell should make the trip for Monday night’s game and then just stay at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs have one of the most explosive offenses in the league behind quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and a dazzling trio of wide receivers, but eventually their utter dearth of a running game will hurt them. They’re gaining 2.7 yards per rush, last in the NFL, and have made just six first downs on running plays. Rookie Ronald Jones, expected to provide an answer alongside Peyton Barber, was a healthy inactive in Week 2.
The Bucs are surprise contenders in the NFC South, and adding Bell would put them in position to keep up in a stacked division.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Last year, the Eagles added running back Jay Ajayi to a 7-1 team, even though they already had LeGarrette Blount and decent options behind him. Spoiler: It worked out. This year, it’s not necessarily about their running backs, even though Ajayi was inactive Sunday with back and hamstring injuries and Darren Sproles missed his second straight game. Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement filled in ably.
But the Eagles’ overall depth at the skill positions around Carson Wentz is a problem. With Alshon Jeffrey injured and Mike Wallace out for the season, the Eagles are desperate for any kind of big-play threat. For large chunks of Sunday’s victory over Indianapolis, they used three tight ends. As devastating as Zach Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert can be as a tight end combo, eventually defenses will adjust without having to keep safeties deep.
Bell’s unique ability to split out and play in the slot would help their wideout drain while also providing further depth to the backfield. His presence would make for a complicated backfield once Ajayi and Sproles return, but the Eagles have the kind of recent success to make some potential chemistry issues work.
2. Green Bay Packers
The Packers are bereft of offensive weapons around Aaron Rodgers, who can carry any roster with two legs but is now trying to do so with one. Under new General Manager Brian Gutekunst, Green Bay showed a new willingness to speckle its roster with free agents and players it didn’t draft. Why wouldn’t Bell fit?
The Packers need to protect Rodgers, and a torrent of short passes to Bell would limit his exposure while still creating the potential for big plays. The Packers have been trying to find a reliable running back for years. Bell would end the search.
1. Miami Dolphins
The AFC East is never a division that can be considered open for the taking. But what if it is? And what if the Dolphins actually are the team to take it?
The Patriots are vulnerable, having been outscored by 20 points in three games. The 3-0 Dolphins already hold a two-game AFC East lead, and their start may not be a fluke: The Dolphins are 10-1 in the past 11 games Ryan Tannehill has started, dating back to 2016.
Bell could cement them as a surprise contender. Kenyan Drake is serviceable, maybe better than that, and Frank Gore is a reliable short-yardage hammer. Bell would provide a completely different kind of threat, a perfect complement for a wide receiving corps that already includes speed outside (Kenny Stills) and steadiness in the slot (Danny Amendola).
The Dolphins have been careful to reset their culture by ridding themselves of personalities they perceive as challenging, starting with the midseason trade of Ajayi last season and continuing with the expulsion of Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh this offseason. Given the rancor his holdout has caused in Pittsburgh, Bell doesn’t exactly fit that pattern, but Miami would be betting a new setting — and maybe a new contract — would placate him.
The Rams and Chiefs are the only other 3-0 teams in the NFL, with Tampa Bay hoping to join them with a victory Monday night. The Dolphins have found themselves in a surprising position. They should take advantage by pouncing on this surprising opportunity to acquire Bell.