There is a lot of turmoil coming out of the New York Jets organization at the moment. Last week, the Jets fired general manager Mike Maccagnan after allowing him to find the team’s next head coach, spend a ton of money in free agency, and select New York’s draft picks.
The Jets announced that their new head coach, Adam Gase, would serve as the team’s interim GM. Gase has a history with not getting along with certain types of players stemming from his tenure with the Miami Dolphins. Soon after the announcement was made, reports surfaced that Gase was not happy with the Jets decision to sign free agent running back Le’Veon Bell.
While Gase understands that Bell is a tremendous back, he feels that it’s not worth to give RB’s high-salary contracts. Bell is not your average RB, however, and it should not take him long to prove that the Jets made the right decision to sign him.
Bell is a significant upgrade for the Jets at running back
First of all, I think it is important to establish that Bell is clearly an upgrade over what the Jets had at running back last season. In 2017, the last time that Bell played, he had 1,946 yards from scrimmage. The top three Jets running backs, Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, and Elijah McGuire, had just 1,759 yards from scrimmage combined. Those three running backs also combined for 11 total touchdowns, the same number that Bell had in 2017. In short, the last time he played, Bell matched the production of New York’s entire backfield.
I am not trying to say that New York’s running backs played poorly last season. But Bell is an elite talent at the position. In 2017, his 1,291 rushing yards would have been third in the NFL in 2018, and his 655 receiving yards would have been sixth among NFL running backs. And his aforementioned 1,946 yards from scrimmage would have been fourth in the NFL. None of the players in the Jets backfield last season could match that level of production. So even though the Jets lost both Crowell and Powell during the offseason, they definitely upgraded at the position when they signed Bell.
You might argue that this comparison is slightly unfair, because Bell was the primary running back on his team in 2017, while the Jets split carries. This kind of situation is where the PFN Offensive Share Metric (OSM) grading system is an excellent tool. They allow us to look at how a player performed while ignoring factors that they could not control, like how many carries they received. And Bell outperformed New York’s running backs in this area as well.
Bell’s 2017 OSM grade of 37.3 was better than either Crowell or McGuire (Powell didn’t have enough rushing attempts to qualify). That’s not to say that the two Jets running backs had poor grades necessarily; McGuire’s grade of 29.5 and Crowell’s of 34.54 are actually quite good. But Bell’s 2017 grade would have been among the best in the NFL last season. Comparing him to the members of the Jets 2018 backfield is just unfair.
Are the Jets actually overpaying for Bell?
Of course, even if you recognize Bell’s talent, you could still argue that the Jets overpaid for his services. New York gave him a four-year deal, worth $52 million, with $27 million guaranteed. At first glance, this seems like a lot, especially for a running back. But when you look into it, this contract isn’t that unreasonable. It does net Bell a large sum of money, but not an amount that is out of line with the league’s other top running backs.
His average yearly salary is second in the NFL for all running backs behind only Todd Gurley and fifth in terms of practical guarantees. He is definitely being paid like a premium running back, but he certainly didn’t receive the mold-breaking contract that he was looking for when he skipped the 2018 season. If Gase doesn’t think Bell is the player he was in 2017 anymore, then yes, New York is overpaying. But if Bell can perform at the level of a top five running back, then what they are paying is entirely in line with what the rest of the league is paying for their high-caliber running backs.
The value of a high-level running back
But perhaps Gase simply didn’t want to invest so much capital into any running back, regardless of their talents. This view is not uncommon in the modern NFL. Many teams are transitioning towards a “running back by committee” approach. But the teams that do have the league’s most talented running backs on their rosters, like the Los Angeles Rams with Gurley or the Dallas Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliott, do things differently. These players are among the highest paid at their positions, not only because they are extremely talented, but also because their teams have built around that talent.
And Bell has consistently shown that he is capable of playing at that level. He was one of the focal points for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense for most of his time with the team. The only real question is whether or not his year away from football will affect his play. But Bell doesn’t have any injury to recover from, which is often the concern with players who have missed significant time. While it might take a while for him to get back into NFL form, I see no reason to believe that he can’t do so. And if he can, then the Jets can use him as a building block for their offense.
What is next?
Whether or not Gase wanted Bell on his team is irrelevant at this point. He has no choice but to build his offense with what he has. And assuming that he can work with and motivate Bell (which could be a problem considering Gase’s history of alienating players), the Jets will have acquired a valuable asset at a fairly reasonable price. New York can use Bell as their primary weapon, and take some of the pressure off of their second-year quarterback Sam Darnold. On the other hand, if Gase mismanages the situation, he could very well prove himself right about the whole situation. And in doing so, he would squander what could otherwise have been a high-impact signing for his new team.