The Bears created a stir Tuesday morning when they freed up a reported $11 million in cap space by shifting a few things around in Khalil Mack’s contract. That must’ve meant Ryan Pace was gearing up for a run at Le’Veon Bell, right?
Maybe it was leftover angst from baseball’s soul-crushingly slow offseason that left Cubs fans praying for Bryce Harper and White Sox fans getting spurned by Manny Machado. But the Bears didn’t create that cap space for a run at Bell, who will sign with the New York Jets when the new league year begins Wednesday afternoon.
Make no mistake, Bell would’ve been a tremendous fit in Matt Nagy’s offense. While he chose to not play in 2018, his prior production (5,336 rushing yards, 2,660 receiving yards), age (27 years old) and skillset (we’ve all seen highlights) would’ve immediately solved the issues surrounding the Bears’ inconsistent running game.
He also would’ve cost the Bears an absurd amount of money to spend on a running back, when players at that position can be found for cheap via free agency and the NFL Draft. If the Bears weren’t due to pay Mitch Trubisky and Eddie Jackson in a few years, and didn’t already have six players with eight-figure cap hits in 2020 (Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller, Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Prince Amukamara), perhaps it would’ve made sense to legitimately pursue Bell.
Sometimes going all-in and not worrying about the future to acquire an elite player is the right move. It was when the Bears added an edge rusher in Mack. Doing it for a running back? That would’ve been questionable. It’s all about positional value.
Even teams with cap space didn’t seriously pursue Bell. The Indianapolis Colts entered free agency with over $100 million in cap space but never entered the market for Bell. The Baltimore Ravens, a playoff team in 2018 with a young and cheap quarterback in Lamar Jackson, never wanted Bell, too:
As people who were lied to about LeVeon Bell's market try to act like they weren't lied to, let's be crystal clear: The Ravens never even spoke to Bell's agent about possibly signing Bell.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) March 13, 2019
The Houston Texans, another playoff team with money to spend, will spend that money on defense. The Oakland Raiders reportedly had interest in Bell, but also reportedly didn’t have the cash on hand to sign him. Even the Buffalo Bills weren’t interested:
Here, from last night, is a list of teams that were NOT involved in the Le’Veon Bell chase. There were murmurs on the Raiders late, but that may have them being used as a stalking horse.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 13, 2019
Really, this was Jets from start to finish. https://t.co/zpo6xrravo
The point: It's not exactly great business to commit a ton of resources to one running back. Of the 11 running backs in 2018 to have a cap hit of $5 million or more, three of them reached the playoffs (Todd Gurley, Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram). None of those players had a cap hit over the $8.95 million taken up by Buffalo's LeSean McCoy.
So that speculation you might’ve read this week about the Bears being interested in Bell? Chalk it up to an agent doing his best to make sure the one team that did want him — the Jets — didn’t think they were bidding against themselves.
And so the Jets, flush with cash but lacking talent on their depth chart, were the team to sign Bell. This was not the kind of deal the Bears could’ve, or would’ve, given to a running back:
Le’Veon Bell’s four-year deal with the New York Jets has a max value of $61 million and includes $35 million guaranteed, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 13, 2019
Le’Veon Bell went to the team loaded with cap room and run by the GM on his last legs. This is my shocked face.— Robert Mays (@robertmays) March 13, 2019
The Bears, instead, will sign ex-Seattle Seahawks running back Mike Davis on Wednesday to a two-year contract with a reported maximum value of $7 million. Signing him keeps with Ryan Pace’s strategy of addressing the running back position, which has been to find value without spending loads of money or draft capital. He can keep his options open at that position in the coming weeks, perhaps signing another free agent and/or drafting a running back. The Bears, for now, don’t absolutely have to trade Jordan Howard, but they don’t absolutely have to keep him. Again, Pace’s options are open.
And it’s worth noting Pace has proven to be rather adept at finding quality running backs with this strategy, most notably in unearthing Howard (fifth round, 2015) and Tarik Cohen (fourth round, 2017).
With several positions still needing to be addressed, too, signing Bell would’ve been like going to the grocery store with $25 needing staples but buying a $15 sheet cake. The Bears began to address those needs by agreeing to terms Tuesday with wide receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson, who checks off several boxes. Pace needs to find a rotational player at outside linebacker behind Mack and Leonard Floyd and address depth on the interior of the Bears’ offensive line.
At the very least, adding a veteran safety to compete with Deon Bush and/or a draft pick for a starting gig would seem prudent, at the most, he could sign one of the remaining starting-caliber players left on the free agent market at that position (who isn’t named Earl Thomas, one would think).
All that adds up to Bell being nothing more than a fever dream for Bears fans hoping for a big splash addition after Pace seemed to build up a penchant for those: Trubisky, Robinson and Mack would all qualify.
But Pace fired his biggest bullets to acquire those guys, most notably Mack. And anyone complaining about Pace not having any ammo left — or wondering why he didn’t use what he did still have in the chamber — might want to go watch highlights of the 2018 season to calm their nerves.