The Eagles are desperate for a running back. One of the NFL’s best is about to hit the open market.
It’s not that simple.
On one level, Le’Veon Bell makes a ton of sense for the Eagles. He’s a three-time all-pro running back who’s rushed for over 1,200 yards with at least 75 receptions in three of the last four seasons that he’s played. And he’s a tremendous blocker.
The running backs currently on the Eagles’ 2019 roster? Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement, none of whom is a starting-caliber NFL running back.
The Eagles’ inability to run the ball in the postseason — they didn’t even reach 50 rushing yards in either game — was damaging, and they don't have a more pressing need as they head into free agency in the draft.
So the Eagles will pursue Bell?
Two reasons, and they’re intertwined: 1) Philosophy and 2) Money.
Howie Roseman’s philosophy — and he’s never wavered from it in either stint as general manager — is that the historically limited shelf life of running backs means you never devote a tremendous amount of resources in the form of draft picks or salary for running backs.
Because you’re just not going to get anywhere close to the return that you get from other positions.
The Eagles haven’t drafted a running back in the first three rounds since LeSean McCoy 10 years ago, and their only recent big-money free agents have been disasters — $42 million over five years for DeMarco Murray, $11½ million over three years for Ryan Mathews, both during the one year Chip Kelly was GM.
Remember, LeGarrette Blount’s one-year deal was worth about $1.6 million, Jay Ajayi cost the Eagles only a fourth-round pick and was on a fifth-round rookie contract when they acquired him, and Clement was undrafted. Those three were the backs on the Super Bowl championship team.
Bell only turned 27 earlier this week, but he’s got the fifth-most touches in NFL history by a player in his first 62 games. That's a red flag for Roseman.
Is it smart to pay a fortune to a guy who plays a position where historically production begins to decline at the point he’s at?
I looked at the rest of the 20 running backs with the most touches after 62 games (the number of games Bell has played in his career) and compared their rushing average in those 62 games with the rest of their career.
The results are shocking: 16 of the 19 declined after the initial 62 games, and 11 of them — more than half — declined by at least half a yard per carry.
The only ones who increased were Jim Brown, Curtis Martin and Ricky Williams, none by more than 0.3 yards per carry.
On average, they declined by 0.42 yards per carry.
Here’s that chart:
Playing running back in the NFL is not conducive to long careers. And as talented as Bell is, we may have seen the start of that decline in 2017, when he averaged 4.0 yards per carry — exactly half a yard below his career average of 4.5 going into 2017.
This doesn’t mean Bell will definitely experience the same sort of decline as Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, Earl Campbell, Jamal Lewis, Eddie George, Clinton Portis or the others. It just means the average NFL running back with a similar workload will.
So we may have already seen Bell at his best.
And Howie knows that.
And that brings us to Part 2, which is money, and the Eagles just don’t have a whole lot of it to spend.
According to an NFL.com story last year, Bell already turned down a five-year, $70 million contract from the Steelers. That would have been nearly 30 percent more lucrative than any running back contract in history.
CBS Sports reported earlier this week that Bell is looking for a deal worth $50 million in just the first two years.
For the sake of comparison, the Eagles paid their running backs a TOTAL of $3.21 million in 2017 and they won the Super Bowl.
The Eagles have cap issues, they have a young quarterback they need to sign and they have three of the first 57 picks in a draft that has some intriguing running backs.
I’m sure Howie could figure out a way to do this deal if he really wanted to. He’s Howie. This is what he does.
I just don’t think the numbers make sense for the Eagles and the way they’ve historically done business.
The Eagles are going to get themselves a franchise running back. It’s just almost certainly not going to be Le’Veon Bell.
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