PATS REPORTER

Perry: Of course the Patriots should be interested in Le'Veon Bell

PATS REPORTER

Le'Veon Bell may not be all that fond of joining a deep running back group and playing alongside a running quarterback in New England. According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, he’s narrowed his choices to three teams and the Patriots aren’t in that mix.

But if Bell has a change of heart, there's one reason why the Patriots shouldn't make a move to bring him aboard. There are about ten times that many as to why they should try.

Let's start with the obvious. Bell would, in all likelihood, come cheap.

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Because of offset language in his contract with the Jets -- New York still owes him $6 million guaranteed -- he can sign a minimum-level deal elsewhere and still make $6 million for the remainder of this season.

The Patriots have plenty of cap space, so that's not a concern. Signing Bell, 28, to a veteran-minimum deal would reduce the financial risk shouldered by the organization to all but nil.

That alone makes the rest of the conversation relatively easy.

Bell has been one of the most productive backs in the league over his last five seasons -- not including 2018, which he sat out after refusing to sign the franchise tag in Pittsburgh -- by almost any statistical measure. And when paired with a good offensive line, he's been a monster.

Consider the following: In Bell's three first or second-team All-Pro seasons -- 2014, 2016, 2017 -- he ran behind the 14th, fourth and seventh-highest graded run-blocking offensive line in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. In those seasons, he had a PFF "elusiveness rating" -- which is based on forced missed tackles -- that was fifth, sixth and 13th in the league. His yards-after-contact totals in those seasons were fourth, third and second-highest among all backs.

 

Last year with the Jets, he ran behind the third-worst run-blocking offensive line in football. His elusiveness rating was 18th and his yards-after-contact totals were 14th.

Grounded flight

Bell's scrimmage yards per game with Steelers
129.0
Bell's scrimmage yards per game with Jets
80.2

It's hard for any back to create when he doesn't have space at the line of scrimmage. The best of the best are able to make something out of nothing, though, and for Bell to continue to rank in the middle of the back among running backs even when he's playing with a poorly-constructed offensive line -- that speaks to his talent.

Pair him with a good offensive line? That's when he's gone wild. And not that we need to remind you, but the Patriots have a very good offensive line. They currently rank second in the NFL in run-blocking grade, according to PFF, and they have been the driving force behind one of the most efficient rushing attacks in the league.

Seems like a good match.

But it's not just Bell's work as a runner that should attract the Patriots and others. In the last four seasons in which he's played at least 12 games, he's ranked second (2014), second (2016), second (2017) and seventh (2019) in targets to backs. He's also been among the best pass-protectors in the league, grading out as PFF's sixth (2019), 16th (2017), fourth-best (2016) and best (2014) back in the NFL in that role.

While Bill Belichick's defenses have done well to mostly bottle up Bell in the past, the coach has been very vocal over the years about just how highly he thinks of Bell's versatile skill set.  

“Oh my god," Belichick said in 2016. "Oh yeah. He’s a tremendous player, great hands, catches the ball, very quick, makes people miss, strong, breaks tackles, excellent balance, tough, doesn’t run out of bounds, fights for extra yardage, a great player . . . Bell’s as good as anybody we’ll play . . .

“He’s a great back, does everything well. Very good with the ball in his hands, good patience, good in pick-up, good in protection, great route-runner, good vision, hard to tackle. He does a good job of setting up blocks and does a good job of reading blocking schemes, has great vision. He is one of the top players in the league.”

The next year Belichick was just as glowing when Bell came up.

“He’s really good. He’s a tremendous player. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage and that’s about really all you need to know. He’s a receiver when he’s out of the backfield. He can run any run you want — inside, outside, runs with power, runs with a lot of skill and quickness in the open field. He’s an excellent receiver in the passing game. A big guy, blitz pickup, matches up well against linebackers and DB’s that he has to block. He’s a tremendous player . . . 

 

“He does whatever he needs to do. If you want to see him run hard, run over people, run downhill then you can find plenty of plays of that. You can see him with his vision finding space in the defense. There’s plays on that. Catching the ball — plenty of plays on that. The guy doesn’t lead the league in yards from scrimmage by doing one thing, doing it a little bit. He does everything. He does it well, does whatever he needs to do. You give him an opening, wherever it is, and he’s going to make you pay for it.”

Asked if he would consider adding Bell, who was released this week, Belichick said Thursday morning, "I wouldn't be really able to talk about anybody that's not a member of our team now. So I'll have to pass on that one. Whatever I've said about Bell on the record before, I stand by that."

Some time has passed since his last on-the-record comments on Bell, of course. But Bell hasn't played much consequential football since then. His 2018 was a wash because of a contract holdout, and in 2019 he was weighed down by a bad offensive line and a coaching staff that has struggled to generate points with a limited roster. 

Cassel: Why the Patriots signing Bell is a bad idea

The one reason a team might not consider bringing Bell aboard would be if there was any concern from a personality standpoint of how he might impact the locker room. But those concerns in New England shouldn't be much of a concern.

Is Bell going to create an upheaval in a locker room that includes people like Julian Edelman, James White, the McCourty twins, Matthew Slater, Lawrence Guy and (a captain based on the leadership he'd shown early in his Patriots tenure) Cam Newton?    Seems unlikely. Even if he does, if he's on a minimum salary, he's easy to release.

The other reason to leave Bell alone that's been floated would be because of the depth on the Patriots roster at that spot. That shouldn't be a real consideration. 

No. 1: Running backs get hurt. Sony Michel has been consistently banged up since coming into the league and is currently on injured reserve. The Patriots are, at the moment, a Damien Harris injury away from not having a first-and-second-down back.

Rex Burkhead could conceivably fill that role. Maybe rookie JJ Taylor could. But Bell would be a better fit -- because of his physicality and his experience -- than either. 

No. 2: The Patriots have been in this spot before, where it looked like they had good running back depth . . . and then they didn't . . . because running backs get hurt. In 2018, they had Cordarrelle Patterson taking hand-offs. In 2015, it was Stephen Jackson who was their top guy at the most critical point in the season. 

 

Not ideal. 

In an offense that is so predicated on running the football, the more cost-effective depth the Patriots can have, the better off they'll be.

"You always want depth," Belichick said Thursday. "You can't have as much depth as you want at every position. you have to sacrifice something somewhere based on the roster size . . . Sometimes you have, let's call it 'too many' players there because there's quality there, and sometimes you don't have enough players.

"What the depth looks like on a board, what it looks like in August and what it looks like in October or November are sometimes completely different things . . . Where we are today, where we were last week, and where we might be in a few days could be completely different."

Understanding that harsh reality as it relates specifically to the running back position in the NFL, understanding Bell could thrive with a good offense around him and understanding that he could be had at a bargain-basement price . . . the Patriots should be interested. 

The downside is limited, and the payoff could be huge. Bell would just have to feel the same way.