I am a huge fan of both Penn State Football and the Pittsburgh Steelers teams. The Steelers have shown favoritism to early-round Big Ten players (e.g. Shazier, Cam Heyward, Artie Burns) but they don't seem to routinely select Penn State players based on what I believe to be differences in systems and/or philosophies (Jesse James being one recent counter-example to this). Saquon Barkley is a generational talent that all teams should be vying for. The Steelers recently announced they were putting talks on-hold with LeVeon Bell so their staff could focus on the upcoming draft. Is there a chance the Steelers have eyes for Barkley? Let's look at the not-so-far-fetched reality of Barkley to the Steelers.

 

Let's start by evaluating the circumstances surrounding LeVeon Bell and the Steelers.

 

  • NFL backs in the modern day NFL are not known for their longevity. And, this should be expected based on how physical the position is. This may be Bell’s final contract before he begins his decline, if not moves into a backup or retirement.
     

  • A lot of teams use a running back by committee approach instead of leveraging the workhorse approach the Steelers use with Bell. This is likely based on the money he is paid under the franchise tags, but it also suggests Bell may have more wear and tear than other backs in the league. He was primarily featured at Michigan State as well.
     

  • Based on the committee philosophy, very good running back talent has been available in later rounds of the draft. Bell has game-changing, elite talent, but adequate replacements can be found and groomed in the draft. This may suggest the Steelers draft his replacement this year and let him walk after playing out this year on the tag with a committee of the drafted player and James Conner.
     

  • The workhorse philosophy is taking away opportunities for other Steelers players. The Bell-heavy play calling took away potential opportunities for the tight-ends to get in rhythm or the younger running backs and receivers to get the experience they need to mitigate the risk of losing Bell (to injury or otherwise).
     

  • Currently, the Steelers have plenty of offensive talent to absorb a loss of LeVeon Bell. While he has a huge impact on the game, the same can be said for Brown, Roethlisberger, or the up and coming JuJu Smith-Shuster.
     

  • The Steelers will not over pay regardless of his elite talent. There is no precedence to pay one player as a number one RB and a number two WR. This is akin to putting your eggs in one basket. I believe there is a growing thought within the organization that they will not be able to find a longer-term deal that does not come with potentially jeoparizing the team’s future.
     

  • Bell has not proven to stay on the field for both health reasons (knees) and disciplinary issues. Any long term deal would need to be made with some injury protections. And, quite frankly, his drug-related issues may bring into question his leadership abilities.
     

  • The economic undertone of all of these discussions is the Steelers cap issues. I appreciate that the Steelers try to keep and pay the talent they draft, as this helps players know the organization will invest if they work hard and play well. But, let’s be clear on one fact: they don't overpay. A lucrative deal with Bell would be a ton of money tied up in three players and three specific positions. I'd like to see how the team could spread this out more. Specifically, younger players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and TJ Watt (both fan favorites, great personalities, and apparent favorable team rapport) already warrant extensions. The Steelers would need to draft well every year to maintain a constant pipeline of young, affordable talent.
     

  • LeVeon Bell is highly coveted across the league. He very easily could have been the top free agent in this and last year’s market if the Steelers had not tagged him. The Steelers very likely could receive a haul for one year of LeVeon Bell and first dibs at signing him to the contract he feels he is worth in a sign-and-trade type scenario. In the case of Barkley, if the Steelers are able to secure a top-5 pick or Barkley slips a bit, he could be within reach for the Steelers.
     

  • Bell is a known commodity in the NFL. The league does place a high value in draft picks, however, there is no guarantee draft-eligible players translate their game from college to the pros.  

 

For the dreamers like me, let’s assume the Steelers consider replacing LeVeon Bell with Saquon Barkley. What are some relevant circumstances here?

  • Drafting Barkley may ensure a smoother transition into the next generation of Steelers offensive leaders. Getting younger at the position ensures a degree of stability longer-term. Older players, like Roethlisberger, Brown, and Pouncey, can more gradually hand the keys over to players like Barkley, Smith-Shuster, and DeCastro.
     

  • Barkley would be significantly cheaper playing through his rookie contract. This can help stabilize the Steelers finances in order to spread their cap throughout the rest of the team that has uncertainty in their secondary and inside/outside linebacker. This mitigates the risk of drafting well, which has been especially challenging for outside linebacker (Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, and the late blooming Jason Worilds, who actually retired before really hitting his stride). Based on their cap situation, the Steelers have been handcuffed in signing top-tier free agent talent or doing significant trades because of the hefty contracts they have given out. Trading Bell and getting a return frees up the almost $15 million allotted by the tag and the future for the Steelers to be more aggressive in exploring talent through free agency and trades.  
     

  • Barkley has already demonstrated similarities to LeVeon Bell. He exhibits the same patient running style as Bell, may actually bring more physicality, and mirrors Bell's ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Drafting Barkley purely based on style may minimize the transition from Bell.
     

  • Barkley more closely aligns with the blue collar, hard working, team first attitude the Steelers prefer. Both Brown and Bell are incredibly hard working, but sometimes allow their egos to take over. They are great, highly motivated players that deserve to have some swagger. But, this creates drama and, as a fan, I find it distracting. Shedding some of the attitude by cutting ties with Bell and adding both the talent and level-headed posture Barkley brings may foster a healthier locker room. Barkley has been widely praised for his poise and leadership, which may bring the Steelers the intangible things that has sustained their team culture and position as one of the best franchises in the league. Recall, they have a past history of prioritizing culture over talent (see Santonio Holmes).

In conclusion, I don’t believe it is all that far fetched should the Steelers be in the position to draft Barkley and move Bell. I’d be just as happy see Bell sign a deal that allows him to retire a Steeler, if this does not compromise the future of the team and dump dead money in the latter end of a long-term deal. They are in win-now mode, but I sense adding a player like Barkley is equally as complementary to that and may actually be more advantageous for the future.

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