I want to preface this by saying that I would prefer to do neither.
Also, I realize it’s not a certainty that the Pittsburgh Steelers will let Le’Veon Bell walk in free agency, but for the sake of our amusement, let’s pretend that they do.
Barkley is a generational talent at his position, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Adrian Peterson. Barkley is a better prospect than Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette, who were both selected with the fourth overall picks in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, respectively.
So, let’s start there: How important have Elliott and Fournette been to their teams?
Well, let’s look at some of the numbers Fournette and Elliott provided this past season:
You can read about Sharp Football Stats’ success rate here.
Looking purely at the yards per attempt, the investments made in Elliott and Fournette seem to be quite faulty. Of course, the success rates are higher for each prospect as compared to their counterparts.
Nevertheless, the minimal difference from their peers doesn’t seem significant enough to justify taking a running back with a top-five pick, especially considering their backups are essentially providing the same productivity.
By the way, the Cowboys’ backups are Alfred Morris (sixth-round pick) and Rod Smith (undrafted), and the Jaguars’ backups are Chris Ivory (undrafted), T.J. Yeldon (second round) and Corey Grant (undrafted).
Still, there are definitely outlying factors that need to be addressed here.
Did defenses favor the passing game more with Fournette and Elliott out of the game? Were their replacements coming in on long third downs and gaining big chunks of yards on delayed hand-offs? (Though success rate accounts for this)
I haven’t watched the film, so I can’t say for sure. However, I would expect teams to honor the run game almost as much for Yeldon and Ivory as they would for Fournette, simply because Blake Bortles is under center for Jacksonville and doesn’t pose much of a threat with his arm, usually.
That same point may not be applicable to the Cowboys, with Dak Prescott at quarterback, but the highly effective offensive line in Dallas makes it so defenses must honor both the run and pass game regardless of who is toting the ball.
Though, Prescott did struggle while Elliott was out during suspension in 2017, which could indicate teams were less worried about the run with Zeke on the sidelines.
The question is, does any of this really matter for Barkley?
Let’s look at another statistic:
This is not just focused on two running backs; this looks at all runners that were selected in the top half of the first round in the last 10 years. When a team takes a back with such a high pick and the return on their investment is about average, it hardly seems worth it.
Even still, there is an upside to taking Barkley with the third overall pick. Look at what Todd Gurley has done for the offense in Los Angeles. He is an MVP candidate after a stellar season where he had more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns.
Barkley is thought of as a superior prospect than Gurley by many, and definitely has that sort of potential in an Andrew Luck/Josh McDaniels-led offense.
However, so does Bell. He is a 25-year-old offensive weapon for the Steelers who is set to hit free agency this spring. Bell is a three-time Pro Bowler, two-time First-Team All-Pro and one-time Second-Team All-Pro. In 15 games this year, he recorded nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage and hit paydirt 11 times.
Those are numbers that rival Gurley’s potent season, and Bell has been doing it for the majority of his five-year career in the NFL.
Bell does have some baggage though, with his past off-field issues, as well as a concerning history with injuries (Sports Injury Predictor believes he has a 56.9% chance of injury in 2018) being a point of apprehension.
Other potential fears with Bell are his running style and his workload in 2017, where he saw 321 carries, which is 21 over the dreaded 300-carry mark. How will he respond in 2018 after such a taxing season?
In terms of his running style, Bell’s stop-start speed is incredible, which allows him to be so patient behind the line of scrimmage, but it also helps that he has one of the better offensive lines in football. Would he still thrive on a roster with a significantly less talented front?
Well, he is Le’Veon Bell, and it’s hard to think that he wouldn’t find a way to be successful, even behind the lackluster Indy blockers. Plus, he is a ginormous mismatch in the pass game, and that alone would be a boost to an offense that sorely needs it.
Now, we know what Barkley would cost to attain, but Bell’s price tag is a little murkier. He was playing on the franchise tag in 2017, where he was the highest paid running back at $12.12 million.
Apparently, that average salary is not enough, as a report from July 2017 stated that Bell wants to be paid like a top running back AND a number 2 wide receiver, which would equate to about $42 million over three years.
That’s $14 million a year, an offer that supposedly, the Steelers have already offered Bell. Coincidentally, Bell has mentioned in one of his rap songs that he would like to see $15 million a year, and we all know rap songs are the most reliable source of news.
Let’s assume, then, that Bell is itching for a three-year, $45-million contract. Even considering that the Colts have approximately $84 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, that is a hefty chunk of change to pay for a position that is near the bottom of the totem pole.
Bell isn’t quite like other running backs though, as he truly is a hybrid runner/receiver that an offense can be molded around. However, Barkley has that same exact potential at 20 years old, with no off-field concerns to date.
What it really comes down to is whether you prefer spending premium draft capital on a running back, or carving out a considerable lump of your cap space for the position.
An important point to discuss is what the Colts would be giving up by either drafting Barkley or signing Bell.
If the Colts selected Saquon with the third pick, they’d most likely be foregoing a pass rusher such as Bradley Chubb, an interior blocker the likes of Quenton Nelson or a pass defender of Minkah Fitzapatrick’s talent.
The toughest of those three to let go would be Chubb. Pass rushers are a rare commodity in the NFL, and they almost never end up becoming free agents (see: Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram).
This makes me confident in saying that Demarcus Lawrence will most likely be re-signed by the Dallas Cowboys, and going after Bell wouldn’t cause the horseshoe to lose out on a pass rusher quite like it would by adding Barkley.
Even if Lawrence did hit free agency, there’s enough cap space there to sign both him and Le’Veon, whereas that option is obviously not available in the draft. Beyond that, a three-year contract would be the perfect length of stay for Bell.
Whoever is drafted this year will be on their rookie contract for the next four years (plus, a fifth-year option), and players that were picked in 2017, such as Hooker, Quincy Wilson and Marlon Mack, will have their contracts expiring at the same time as Bell’s would be.
This would mean that the Colts are able to get three years of All-Pro play out of the best running back in the NFL and still be able to extend their young talent for years to come, while potentially adding a compensatory pick to their repertoire.
This is the most ideal situation in this scenario, meaning that signing Bell is the way to go. An offseason of Bell and Chubb sounds like a franchise-altering few months and is the preferred choice over acquiring Barkley.
My real wish is that general manager Chris Ballard picks neither party and drafts the next Bell, David Johnson, Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara in the later rounds of the draft. We will just have to wait and see what happens.