Other teams are being placed prominently as suitors for Le’Veon Bell, but the Houston Texans should be ready to pay up and get him.
Even after sitting out last season, Le’Veon Bell will have a number of suitors when NFL free agency opens next week. Teams with a lot of cap space, like the New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, or even the Baltimore Ravens, have been tabbed as teams with some level of need at running back and the means to pay Bell what he’s sure to be looking for.
The Houston Texans currently have just shy of $83.3 million in cap space (via Spotrac), third-most in the league. A franchise tag for Jadeveon Clowney, or a new multi-year contract for him, will take up a chunk of that. If they can get a deal done with safety Tyrann Mathieu, and/or cornerback Kareem Jackson, there goes a little more of that cap room.
The Texans finished eighth in the league in rushing last season (126.3 yards per game). But take away quarterback Deshaun Watson’s production as a runner (551 yards, 34.4 yards per game) and that drops to 31st in the league. They were 19th in the league in yards per carry (4.3), and without Watson’s 5.5 per carry that drops to 3.9 yards per tote.
Lamar Miller is a perfectly adequate running back, and he averaged 4.6 yards per carry over 14 games in 2018. But he’s entering the final year of his contract, and while his $5.5 million base salary for this year is not exorbitant and cutting him would clear $6.2 million in cap space (with a $1 million dead money hit). If D’Onta Foreman had not torn his Achilles during the 2017 season, Miller’s hold on the starting job would not be what it is right now.
Houston has a clear No. 1 wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. But he accounted for one-third of the team’s catches last year (115), almost 38 percent of the team’s receiving yardage (1,572) and over 42 percent of the Texans’ receiving touchdowns (11 of 26). No one else had more than 32 catches (Will Fuller), 503 receiving yards (Fuller) and four touchdown catches (Fuller and tight end Jordan Thomas). Finding another weapon has to be high on the list of priorities this offseason for the Texans, perhaps only behind offensive line.
With a first-round pick in April’s draft, and two picks in the second round, that latter need could be partially addressed via the draft (which is to say, cheaper than strictly via free agency).
The Texans could consider a trade for Bell’s former teammate Antonio Brown, and give themselves the best wide receiver duo in the league. But Bell has been one of the best pass-catching backs in the league, so he adds that along with his running ability. And he’s a year younger than Miller, who will turn 28 in late-April.
Houston could go a notch or two below Bell in the free agent market at running back, to Tevin Coleman, Mark Ingram or T.J. Yeldon. But none of those guys have Bell’s talent and upside, real or perceived after a year off the field, and it would be foolish to dismiss the Texans as an under the radar suitor for the former Steeler.