James Conner

Le’Veon Bell Fallout: Steelers, Conner, Jets

In becoming the first franchise-tagged player since the Chiefs’ Dan Williams in 1998 to commit to skipping an entire season, Le’Veon Bell ensured himself to be a key name in NFL business history henceforth. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert confirmed Bell did not sign his franchise tender on Tuesday and will not play in 2018. He’s likely bound for the 2019 market. Here’s the latest from the Bell front:

  • Pittsburgh’s plan will still be a transition tag, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports tweets. This will be for Bell’s would-have-been 2018 franchise tag amount ($14.5MM), though it’s not like the Steelers will be prepared to match a big offer. They have James Conner in the fold for at least two more seasons on a third-round deal and have obviously been through quite the ordeal with his predecessor. The Steelers also won’t match an offer because of a preference to avoid other teams structuring their contracts, The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly notes (subscription required). A trade could commence, but with no draft compensation attached to the transition tag, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have much leverage here.
  • While Conner delivering the same level of production Bell did in 2017 may not look great for Bell’s status as a difference-making running back, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk not only expects the soon-to-be 27-year-old running back to match Todd Gurley‘s market-shattering contract (four years, $57.5MM, $45MM guaranteed) but expects Bell to land a better deal in 2019 (Twitter link). With the cap rising by approximately $10MM annually, this could happen. It’s a major risk, though, especially given Bell’s injury and suspension history (18 missed games, counting the playoffs, due to injury). Gurley had 914 career regular-season touches prior to signing his extension; David Johnson ($13MM AAV) had just 405. Although Bell will preserve his body for a hopeful megadeal, he has 1,541 career touches — the most of any active back through an age-25 season. While it’s likely Bell will command a lucrative pact, it’s not a lock he ventures into Gurley territory.
  • As for who will pay Bell, the Colts and Jets stand to possess more than $100MM in cap space in 2019. The Bills and Raiders will also have plenty of money to spend, though both teams have needs at several positions. Kaboly pinpoints the Jets, who don’t have much in the way of long-term solutions beyond Sam Darnold, on offense. While the Jets also have needs at just about every position on offense, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News writes they should sign Bell — even if it forces an overpay — citing Darnold’s rookie contract as a window for bigger free agent moves. This may be the team that would make Bell’s plan worthwhile. They gave out lavish deals to Darrelle Revis and Trumaine Johnson, and now Mike Maccagnan may be entering a win-or-else offseason. The Colts have not spent wildly in free agency in Chris Ballard‘s first two seasons, however.
  • Conner remains in concussion protocol, and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes neither Jaylen Samuels nor Stevan Ridley have shown to be on his level. Citing past Steelers running backs’ absences in playoff games — including Bell, who either missed or failed to finish four postseason contests over a three-season span — Bouchette notes Conner’s health now becomes even more important if the team is to finally break through after several January letdowns this decade.

Steelers Expected To Use Transition Tag On Le’Veon Bell

Even though nothing is ever certain when it comes to Le’Veon Bell, it does not appear that Bell will report to the Steelers by the November 13 deadline, which means that he will be ineligible to play at all in 2018 (although he would still be eligible for the third-year franchise tag amount of $25MM+). Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network acknowledges that, when Bell’s camp learned that his franchise tag price would be unaffected even if he stayed away from the team for the entire year, that seemed to tip the scales in favor of a year-long holdout (video link).

Of course, the Steelers are not going to put the franchise tag on Bell, which means, as Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports writes, that the team is likely to hit him with the transition tag. That designation would allow Pittsburgh to match any offer sheet that Bell signs with a different club, but the Steelers would not receive any draft compensation in return if they elected to not match (and they almost assuredly will not match).

So even though it is mostly a moot point, the league is preparing for how the transition tag process will unfold. As La Canfora writes, the transition tag value could fall anywhere between $9.5MM and $14.5MM, and once the tag is put on, a hearing would be scheduled for an arbitrator to decide on precisely what the amount of the tag should be.

La Canfora suggests that a team could front-load an offer to Bell or guarantee him money beyond the first two years of a contract in order to entice him to sign, but he also suggests that the demand for Bell’s services could be quite tepid. Bell’s holdout and his injury/suspension history will surely give his potential suitors some pause, as will the fact that he will be another year older in 2019. While he is certainly preserving his body by not playing in 2018, Aditi Kinkhabwala of the NFL Network tweets that there are a number of “football folks” who believe that age is age and whether Bell plays this year or not will have no impact on his performance moving forward. It would certainly be interesting if the Steelers end up applying the transition tag and Bell does not get the type of interest he is clearly anticipating on the open market, because then he may have no other choice but to sign the tag and return to Pittsburgh in 2019.

More important to the Steelers at the moment is the health of James Conner, who has excelled in Bell’s absence. Conner remains in the concussion protocol, but Rapoport says the Steelers are optimistic that the second-year back will not miss any time. They would, however, love to have Bell back, as Albert Breer of TheMMQB writes. They believe he truly can be deadly on fresh legs and would enhance an already excellent offense. As Bell has still not said anything definitive to the team one way or another, Pittsburgh is hoping to see him walk through the door prior to the deadline.

Assuming Bell does not appear, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com writes that, in addition to the $14.5MM he would have received this year if he had signed his franchise tag, he will also miss out on another $200K in pension, annuity, 401K, and health reimbursement benefits, plus however that money would compound over time.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Steelers’ Conner In Concussion Protocol

Steelers running back James Conner is in concussion protocol, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (video link) reports. If Conner is not cleared in the next week or so, his availability against the Jaguars on Nov. 18 could be in jeopardy. 

Conner was forced out of Thursday night’s blowout win over the Panthers. During the third quarter, doctors checked out Conner in the blue medical tent and cleared him to return. Then, in the fourth quarter, he was pulled for good with the Steelers leading by 38. Conner checked out with 65 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries and the Steelers went on tow in 52-21.

Conner has 771 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the season and the club has hardly missed Le’Veon Bell. Some have speculated that the Steelers do not want Bell to return before Tuesday’s deadline, but they’ll want him back on the field if Conner is sidelined for any period of time.

Bell has been spotted playing basketball in a Pittsburgh gym, so he won’t have to travel far in order to report to the team’s facility. However, Bell only recently learned that he does not have to show up by Tuesday in order to effectively guarantee that he’ll be a free agent in March, and it’s possible that he could sit out for the entire year. For what it’s worth, team ownership expects Bell to show up for work.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On Le’Veon Bell, Steelers

We learned yesterday that the Steelers final offer to running back Le’Veon Bell was worth $70MM over five years. While that deal is plenty lucrative, it may not have been as good as it sounded. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweets that the deal only contained $10MM in guaranteed money. Similar to last season’s offer, Bell would have made $33MM over the first two years “in a rolling guaranteed structure.” This number would have been increased to $45MM over three years.

As Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com points out (via Twitter), the deal would have been “virtually identical to the cash flows of the last contract.” The boosts in value would have been based on the increase in value of the running back franchise tag.

There’s been plenty of news pertaining to Bell and the Steelers over the past few days, which naturally led to a number of reactions and observations. We compiled all of the relevant notes below:

  • While reports indicated that the Steelers had offered Bell the $70MM contract, Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, seemed to imply that that wasn’t actually the case. In fact, he seemingly backed the above report that the deal didn’t include much guaranteed money. “I am certainly not saying that what has been reported is accurate because it’s not quite frankly,” Bakari said (via SiriusXM NFL Radio on Twitter). “The most important element is the guarantee.”
  • Yesterday, Bakari said this will likely be his client’s final season in Pittsburgh. If Bell does end up going elsewhere, he’ll be the eighth player since 2013 to leave his team after being tagged (via Rapoport on Twitter). The list of players includes quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, linebacker Brian Orakpo, defensive end Greg Hardy, offensive guard Branden Albert, defensive end Michael Johnson, and defensive tackle Henry Melton. Rapoport did not include cornerback Josh Norman nor tight end Jimmy Graham, who both had unique defections after inking the franchise tag.
  • Mark Kaboly of The Athletic writes that neither the Steelers nor Bell’s camp are to blame for the lack of a long-term deal. The writer understands that the organization isn’t in a hurry to pay a running back more than $14.5MM per season. On the flip side, Kaboly believes Bell has established himself as one of the best players at his position, and he deserves to have a contract that matches his standing.
  • Could the Steelers end up rescinding Bell’s one-year, $14.5MM franchise tender? While it’s unlikely, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com explains that it’s a possibility. The writer opines that the organization may not want to pay that kind of money to a player who will only be with the organization for one more season, especially if Bell decides to sit out regular season games. Plus, the Steelers seem to have a solid backup plan in James Conner, and they could also choose to pursue any of the available running backs still sitting on the market (a grouping that includes Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris, or the recently-retired DeMarco Murray).
  • Fitzgerald took a look at the current “plight of the running back,” noting that Bell and his peers can’t expect to earn the same kind of money that running backs earned five or six years ago. Ultimately, even if Bell does somehow manage to snag a record-breaking contract, Fitzgerald doesn’t believe it will have a lasting impact on the running back market.

North Notes: Packers, Q. Diggs, Conner

We heard last month that the Packers would be going “back to Page 1” of their playbook, but as Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal writes, Green Bay is not going to be making any wholesale changes to its offense. In light of all of the new voices on the offensive side of the ball this year — Joe Philbin is back as OC, Frank Cignetti Jr. is in as quarterbacks coach, and there are several other staff changes besides — it made sense for all involved to thoroughly review the team’s play design and philosophy. But as Philbin said, “It’s been a process of refining, enhancing, tweaking, as opposed to, ‘Yeah we scrubbed it down.’ Yes, we went page by page. (But) we’re not starting from scratch here. These players in that locker room, they’ve done some great things.” 

Philbin, of course, is primarily referring to star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers indicated that verbiage has changed — and Philbin acknowledged that such changes were made in order to streamline the playcalling — and that has created something of a learning curve. But passing game Jim Hostler said that the goal is for the offense to look the same as it always has with Rodgers under center, even if there are some refinements and enhancements here and there.

Now for more from the league’s north divisions:

  • Opposing defenses were already treating Packers WR Davante Adams as the team’s No. 1 wideout last season, so the departure of Jordy Nelson will not represent much of a change in that regard, as Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com writes. But Green Bay has not (yet) signed a veteran wideout to replace Nelson, so Adams will need to take on a more active role in terms of leadership. The Packers drafted three receivers this year — one each in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds — and return 24-year-old Geronimo Allison as the presumed No. 3 WR on the depth chart, so Adams is suddenly the second-oldest player in the wide receiver room. He was not present for the start of OTAs, which caused some concern in light of his concussion history, but neither player nor team seem concerned about his availability. Head coach Mike McCarthy simply said Adams is “battling a couple things,” presumably minor injuries.
  • Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com says Quandre Diggs has a real chance to permanently supplant Tavon Wilson as the Lions‘ starting strong safety in 2018. Diggs, a former sixth-round selection, played well in that role last season, and Rothstein suggests he may even be the favorite to start at this point. Miles Killebrew, a former fourth-round choice, appears to be on the outside looking in and may need to continue to stand out on special teams to retain his roster spot.
  • James Conner, a feel-good story and 2017 third-round choice, is featuring prominently in Steelers‘ OTAs due to Le’Veon Bell‘s continued absence, as Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com writes. Conner showed flashes in his rookie campaign, which ended with a Week 15 MCL tear, but if he can cement himself as the team’s No. 2 back behind Bell this season — and he will need to improve in pass protection in order to do so — that could be the first step towards a starting job in 2019, depending on Bell’s contract situation.
  • John Ross is once again a full participant in the Bengals‘ OTAs, as Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer observes. Although Ross dropped a few passes, he also made some difficult grabs and is seeing a lot of passes come his way. Tyler Eifert, meanwhile, is a limited participant, but having both players involved at the beginning of full team work is a beautiful thing for Cincinnati fans.
  • Neil Stratton of InsideTheLeague.com (via Twitter) details a few more changes to the Browns‘ scouting department that were not covered several days ago.

Steelers Sign RB Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley‘s jersey collection continues to grow. On Tuesday, the Steelers announced that they have signed the running back. He’ll replace fellow RB James Conner, who is headed to IR after undergoing knee surgery.Stevan Ridley (vertical)

Ridley’s best football came during his four-year run with the Patriots, particularly in 2012. In that campaign, he totaled more than 1,200 rushing yards as well as 12 rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, injuries have altered the course of his once-promising career. Since parting ways with the Pats, he’s been employed by the Jets, Lions, Colts, Falcons, Broncos, and Vikings. He has not been able to replicate that ’12 stat line at any of those stops. With Pittsburgh, he’ll be asked to serve as the third tailback behind starter Le’Veon Bell and Fitzgerald Toussaint, the team’s de facto No. 2 RB.

Conner, a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2017, was one of the most inspirational stories to come out of this year’s draft. The Pennsylvania native and Pitt product bounced back from a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis (not to mention a torn MCL) in 2015 to conclude his college career with a vengeance in 2016. A cancer-free Conner turned in his second thousand-yard campaign with the Panthers (1,092, on 5.1 yards per carry) and combined for 20 touchdowns (16 rushing, four receiving). This year, he became Bell’s primary understudy. His season ends with 32 catches for 144 yards.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC North Notes: Lewis, Browns, Steelers

Marvin Lewis again refused to confirm the report by ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter indicating he was planning to step away from the Bengals after 15 seasons, but the veteran coach did make a comment about his desire to coach the team after this season. Asked if he wanted to coach football next season, Lewis responded, “I’m (gonna) coach football.” Asked if he wanted to coach the Bengals, Lewis replied, “Sure,” per Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The Bengals have been outscored 67-14 over the past two weeks and are going to finish with their second straight losing record. Lewis does not have a contract in place for 2018 after multiple years of offseason one-year extensions.

Here’s the latest out of the AFC North.

  • With the Steelers losing to the Patriots and thus unable to clinch home-field advantage in Week 16, the Browns‘ final realistic chance to avoid becoming the second 0-16 team ever could hinge on Sunday’s game in Chicago. And Hue Jackson will stick with his current quarterback for that Bears tilt. DeShone Kizer will make his 14th start of the season. This comes after Jackson admitted he considered benching the rookie after yet another shaky performance. Monday, though, Jackson said (via Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com) the Notre Dame product was “up to the challenge” of starting another game. The Browns, who face the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 17, are now 1-29 in Jackson’s 30 games. Kizer boasts a 59.4 quarterback rating and a 24.5 QBR.
  • Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk floated the idea of the Browns attempting to trade Jackson to the Bengals, and SI.com’s Peter King notes John Dorsey would probably rather part with Jackson than keeping the incumbent around for 2018. Florio adds Dorsey declining to answer a direct question about Jackson being back for 2018 adds fuel to the fire the Browns would consider an about-face and can Jackson after two remarkably unsuccessful seasons. Jimmy Haslam said twice publicly Jackson would be back, and Florio reports, however, the owner has said the same thing in private. An 0-16 season, though, could change the equation. King writes a third-round pick may be all that would be necessary for the Bengals to send to Cleveland in the event this hypothetical scenario occurred. The second-year Cleveland coach said Monday, however, he wasn’t interested in succeeding Lewis in Cincinnati despite the former succession plan that was in place for him with the franchise. Jackson was Cincinnati’s OC for two seasons and coached under Lewis for seven years encompassing two stints.
  • Now just one game ahead of the Jaguars (and their head-to-head tiebreaker) for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, the Steelers will have to reshuffle their running back corps for the time being. Le’Veon Bell will need a new backup for the time being after Mike Garafolo of NFL.com revealed (on Twitter) James Conner will need knee surgery. Garafolo reports the rookie will likely need a few weeks to recover from this. Like Antonio Brown‘s regular-season-ending calf injury, Conner’s setback adds additional incentive for the Steelers to secure a bye by winning their final two games. Pittsburgh has veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint as the only other halfback on its roster.

Steelers Sign James Conner

The Steelers have signed third-round running back James Conner, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle was among those to report (via Twitter). With Conner joining fifth-round cornerback Brian Allen, sixth-round long snapper Colin Holba and seventh-round linebacker Keion Adams under contract, Pittsburgh has now signed half of its eight-pick class.

James Conner

Conner, a Pennsylvania native who was among the nation’s best backs with Pitt, is now in position to make an NFL impact in his home state. Of course, the 105th overall pick also comes with an inspirational story, having bounced back from a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis (not to mention a torn MCL) in 2015 to conclude his college career with a vengeance last season. A cancer-free Conner turned in his second thousand-yard campaign with the Panthers (1,092, on 5.1 yards per carry) and combined for 20 touchdowns (16 rushing, four receiving). In parts of four seasons at Pitt, he found the end zone 56 times (52 on the ground).

With the Steelers lacking established NFLers behind starting running back Le’Veon Bell, Conner should serve as the two-time Pro Bowler’s top backup in 2017. It’s possible Conner will end up as the Steelers’ starter in 2018 if Bell walks as a free agent next offseason, but the team hopes to sign the franchise tag recipient to an extension in the coming months.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extra Points: Raiders, Cowboys, Redskins, Draft

More details of Oakland’s scrutinized plan to keep the Raiders emerged this weekend, but things aren’t too much smoother on the Las Vegas front for the franchise. As recently as two weeks ago, Mark Davis was told he did not have enough votes from his fellow owners to move the team to Sin City, Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com reports.

This status could obviously change since a relocation vote hasn’t been scheduled yet, but the Raiders owner has not participated in the Oakland plan. Despite owners’ public preferences on Vegas mostly a mystery at this juncture, although obvious hesitancy persists due to the market size and Vegas’ gambling connections, the recent emergence of a Bay Area plan without the Raiders on board leaves the league in a strange spot regarding the future of one of its most famous franchises.

Ratto notes the NFL is not particuarly fond of a business arrangement with either Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas, or the Fortress Group in the Bay Area despite Ronnie Lott‘s involvement. He can envision a scenario where the league stalls this process until one of the solutions becomes tenable in its view.

Here’s more from around the league on the eve of Week 14 Sunday.

  • Today’s extension for Jamar Taylor could mean the new Browns regime is eyeing a trade of Joe Haden. The veteran corner has struggled in back-to-back seasons, and Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com tweets the Browns will potentially see what kind of market exists for the veteran corner on draft weekend. Pro Football Focus rates Haden as its No. 96 overall corner, and the former first-round pick — signed to a five-year, $67.5MM deal in May of 2014 — played in just five games in 2015.
  • The Cowboys will be playing without return specialist Lucky Whitehead against the Giants due apparently to a Snapchat-induced issue, Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram tweets. A team-rules violation officially kept Whitehead from traveling with the team to New Jersey, and Charean Williams and Drew Davison of the Star-Telegram report a missed meeting factored into this as well. Whitehead’s returned 19 punts and 10 kickoffs this season. Lance Dunbar and Cole Beasley are listed as the specialty backups.
  • Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are headed for free agency and it has been said that the Redskins will not retain both players. Which wide receiver should be retained? Mark Bullock of The Washington Post dove deep into game footage to figure out which player is more valuable for Washington. He concludes that the Redskins should keep Jackson because he is still a legitimate deep threat, something the team lacks without him. In addition to his own touchdown bombs, Bullock says that DJax can open up space for Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder.
  • Reed is expected to return to action Sunday against the Eagles after missing Week 13 with a shoulder injury, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets.
  • Cancer survivor James Conner will forego his final season at Pittsburgh and enter the draft, Jared Shanker of ESPN.com reports. Conner scored 56 touchdowns — the most in ACC history — in just three seasons and beat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma just as Eric Berry did. The running back claimed ACC player of the year honors in 2014 but tore his MCL a year later and misssed that season. The cancer diagnosis came in December of 2015, but Conner returned to the field in September and rushed for 1,060 yards this season. He joins Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and D’Onta Foreman as early-entry backs but isn’t expected to go in the first or second round like that trio is.

Zach Links contributed to this report