On March 11, 2019, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the San Francisco 49ers were interested in signing then Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Though only a rumor, which was likely to drive up Bell’s suitors’ price, that was not the last time the Niners and Bell were connected. Ten days later, a report came out that the 49ers offered Bell a three-year, $40 million contract. That was per Bell himself, who ended up signing with the Jets on a four-year, $52.5-million deal. It’s likely due to the guaranteed money, as Bell received $35-million guaranteed. It’s safe to say he regretted that decision, as Bell’s time in New York was forgettable, and he went from being in a Kyle Shanahan offense to an Adam Gase one.
Bell was released by the Jets on Tuesday, and are on the hook for roughly $6 million of his salary, which is the prorated remainder of his base salary. That means that any team that acquires Bell can do so at the league minimum. While Bell’s numbers look putrid over the past couple of seasons, signing a talent of his caliber for pennies is enticing. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell believes that the 49ers could revisit their potential free-agent signing in ‘19 and use Bell effectively:
One team that was linked to Bell when he was approaching free agency was the 49ers, who can never have enough weapons for coach Kyle Shanahan. San Francisco is beat up around its roster, and although it got Raheem Mostert back for Sunday’s blowout loss to the Dolphins, virtually every one of its backs has a recent and/or significant injury history.
I wonder whether the 49ers might get particularly creative with Bell and use him less like a pure running back and more like the sort of hybrid back Gase pretended to suggest Bell might become in New York. Shanahan loves nothing more than having offensive weapons who are threats as both runners and receivers with the ball in their hands. Bell would be another one of those pieces.
Why it makes sense:
You’re getting Bell at a big-time discount in an offense where the play-caller loves to use running backs. Bell has a reputation of a patient running back that knows how to find creases; he’s also an excellent receiver, and possibly the most crucial part about Bell’s game, he’s incredible in pass protection. While Deebo Samuel plays his way into shape and Brandon Aiyuk learns the ropes as an NFL receiver, Bell could immensely help the 49ers passing attack. I wrote earlier this week how the wideouts have struggled to gain separation early in this season. Kyle Shanahan could use Bell as a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot. It’s all about matchups, and you’d rather have Bell as a potential mismatch on a linebacker. Those are easier throws for Jimmy Garoppolo as well.
Plus, it’s a low-risk, high-reward type of signing. You’re bringing in Bell to a strong locker room where he’s not going to get 20+ touches a game, but you could certainly find ways to get him the ball in space. Knowing Bell could be had for the veteran minimum, I wouldn’t be opposed to this move at all, especially if it makes life easier for Jimmy G for the rest of the season. He could use a check-down option and someone who knows how to block the correct blitzer consistently. There were a few whiffs on Sunday by the running backs in pass protection. That, to me, is where some of the protection issues lie.
Why it doesn’t make sense
The 49ers are 2-3, and Bell could very well want to take his time and go to a team he feels like is a Super Bowl contender. Many have already abandoned ship on the Niners Super Bowl chances through five games. That, plus Bell could want to be the top running back, and that’s not going to happen in any Shanahan type of offense.
Jerick McKinnon has been outstanding this season. He may not have the same type of juice he once had to run away from defenders, but Jet is effective in every facet of the game. By signing Bell, you’re all but giving up on the other free agent you signed and had high hopes for.
There’s always the personality and fit concern when you’re talking about signing a player, but Bell has had issues with both the Steelers and the Jets and has been vocal about those problems. Adam Gase said earlier this week, “I wish he’d talk to me instead of liking tweets about his usage.” Who is to say Bell won’t be disgruntled in San Francisco if he’s not happy with the number of touches he’s getting? I could see Bell’s negative image in that light leading the 49ers to steer clear of the talented running back.
What do you think? Should the 49ers make a run at Bell?