Le'Veon Bell's future unclear as Pittsburgh Steelers set to franchise tag running back

Jay Asser 6/03/2018
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Le'Veon Bell is one of the best running backs in the NFL.

Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers are at an impasse, with neither side budging from their position.

With no long-term contract agreed on as of yet, the Steelers will franchise tag Bell for a second consecutive season, paying him $14.5 million for one year.

The running back stated back in January that he’ll consider retirement if forced to play on the franchise tag again and ahead of Tuesday’s deadline he told ESPN that he’s not backing off his stance.

“I just have to decide if I’m going to play when the time comes,” Bell said.

The deadline to work out a long-term deal, however, runs into the summer with the sides having an additional four months to reach an extension before July 16.

If an agreement isn’t reached by then, Bell may choose to skip training camp and even sit out regular season games.

“We’re not coming to a number we both agree on – they are too low, or I guess they feel I’m too high,” Bell said. “I’m playing for strictly my value to the team. That’s what I’m asking. I don’t think I should settle for anything less than what I’m valued at.”

While the $14.5m he’s set to receive on the franchise tag for 2018 is a hefty figure – 120 per cent increase from the $12.12m he played on last season – Bell could be in search of a contract that pays him that much annually over multiple years.

That figure would nearly double the $8.25m per year Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman makes, which is the highest for any player in the same position.

Based on past production though, Bell has a case for setting a new benchmark. Entering last season, no player had ever averaged more yards from scrimmage per game during their first four seasons in the NFL than Bell’s mark of 128.7.

And while his 2017 per-game production didn’t match what he did the previous year, Bell still earned first-team All-Pro honours for racking up 1,291 rushing yards on a league-high 321 carries, while adding 655 receiving yards on 85 receptions. He also found the end zone 11 times (nine rushing, two receiving).

Few running backs in the league can do what Bell does as a three-down player who’s elite as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker.

Other than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, it’s arguable no one on the Steelers is as valuable as Bell.

The problem for him, however, is that he plays a position with a relatively short shelf life and while he’s only 26, it’s possible Pittsburgh believe his best days may be behind him after the heavy load he’s already carried.

Add to that the growing expendability of running backs in the league and Bell may have to settle for something less than the payday he’s looking for.

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Considering Lamar Jackson as anything other than an NFL quarterback has racial overtones

Jay Asser 5/03/2018
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Lamar Jackson throws at the NFL combine. Picture credit: Twitter/@NFL

Forget the question of whether or not he’s a quarterback, Lamar Jackson may end up as the best prospect of any player at the position in this year’s NFL draft.

The 21-year-old had already proved his potential before the scouting combine even got under way in Indianapolis this past week, having put together a stellar college career that included the Heisman Trophy in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped unfair criticism from putting Jackson under the microscope.

Rather than focusing on what he can do as a quarterback, the rhetoric at the combine has centred on if Jackson should be playing an entirely different position.

The ridiculous narrative started when former Indianapolis Colts general manager and NFL analyst Bill Polian suggested Jackson would have to play wide receiver at the next level back in September, before doubling down on his claim in the lead-up to the combine.

Then, an NFL Network report surfaced on Friday that stated multiple teams had asked Jackson to work out as a receiver, but the Louisville product shut down the rumours and stood firm on his belief that he has one position and one position only.

“No teams have asked me to be a wide receiver,” Jackson said. “I don’t know where that comes from. Strictly quarterback.”

Plain and simple, the notion that Jackson should play receiver is an insult and one that comes with racial overtones.

The thinking has less to do with Jackson being better as a receiver because he’s fast and athletic, and more to do with him being an underwhelming quarterback prospect because of his lack of accuracy.

Jackson’s 59.1 per cent completion rate this past season was far from stellar, but it still topped Josh Allen’s mark of 56.3 per cent. And yet the Wyoming quarterback – who, as you can guess, is white – Is being hailed as the potential number one overall pick, while Jackson has to deal with countless questions regarding his position.

Allen is 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds. Why not turn him into a tight end?

This isn’t to pick on Allen or even suggest he shouldn’t be the first pick – it’s to show how laughable the Jackson criticism is.

It’s fine to think Jackson’s raw and needs further developing, but to suggest he play another position is a veiled attempt to stereotype quarterbacks.

‘Pocket passer’ or ‘cerebral’ are often code words used to describe white quarterbacks, while black quarterbacks are usually defined as ‘scramblers’.

Just because you have athleticism doesn’t mean you can’t also stand tall in the pocket, read the defence and deliver an on-time pass. And if you watched Jackson at all in college, you saw he has a range of abilities that make him almost impossible to game plan against.

With the way modern NFL offences are trending, a quarterback like Jackson has the potential to thrive under a creative offensive coordinator or head coach. If players like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton – three of the best quarterbacks in the league who also use their feet nearly as much as their arm – can dominate, why can’t Jackson?

Add in his leadership qualities and relatively clean record off the field and the only reaction the team that drafts him should have is excitement, not a desire to make him something other than he is.

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Shaquem Griffin is turning heads as the star of the NFL combine

Jay Asser 5/03/2018
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Shaquem Griffin ran the 40-yard dash in a time of 4.38 seconds.

Being limited to one hand hasn’t stopped Shaquem Griffin from stealing the show at the NFL scouting combine.

The Central Florida linebacker, who is missing his entire left hand, has turned heads in Indianapolis and potentially raised his draft stock with jaw-dropping performances in the drills.

Griffin first dazzled by racking up 20 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press on Saturday by using a prosthetic on his left arm. For comparison, Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly, who is widely considered one of the top linebackers in the NFL, pumped out 27 bench press reps at the combine in 2012.

Griffin’s followed up the show of strength by displaying amazing speed to clock a time of 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash on Sunday – the fastest for any linebacker since 2003.

For perspective on how quick that is for the position, running back and top prospect Saquon Barkley raised eyebrows for running the 40 in 4.40 seconds on Friday.

The 22-year-old Griffin, whose twin brother Shaquill is a cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks, was born with a deformed left hand due to amniotic band syndrome and had it amputated at the age of four to relieve pain that nearly caused him to cut off his remaining digits himself.

Griffin’s display at the combine not only makes him the draft’s feel-good story, but bodes well for his stock as he attempts to become the first player with one hand to be drafted in the NFL in the modern era.

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