By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — To the principals in charge in Foxboro, there may be nothing so sweet as a New York Jets loss turning into a New England Patriots gain. And so it’s only natural to wonder if Bill Belichick might pounce on the newfound availability of former All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell.
With Bell’s turbulent Jets career coming to an abrupt end this week, the 28-year-old running back is a free agent, able to sign with any NFL team that wants him. And with the Jets on the hook for a whole lot of dough, it will hardly cost that new team much money at all.
Capitalizing on signing high-ceiling players for low-dollar salaries is kind of a Belichick staple over the past 20 years, so it’s only natural that speculation would lead immediately to the Patriots seizing on this opportunity.
Belichick was asked directly about any potential interest in Bell on Thursday morning. As expected, Belichick didn’t comment directly about the player, though he did refer to some of his past statements of praise for the running back.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to really talk about anybody that’s not a member of our team now, so I have to pass on that one,” Belichick said. “You know, whatever I’ve said about Bell before on the record is, you know, I stand by that, for sure.”
The Patriots are certainly not short on options out of the backfield this year. Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, James White and undrafted rookie J.J. Harris have rushed for 514 yards on 97 carries, good for an average of 5.3 yards per carry with three touchdowns. Add in Cam Newton’s 149 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns, plus Burkhead’s, Michel’s and White’s combined receiving totals (192 yards and a touchdown on 24 receptions), and the Patriots have themselves a pretty robust running back corps.
“I think that they do have different skills and there are many talented players in that group,” Belichick said Wednesday. “I like the depth and the quality that we have at that position.”
In a follow-up to the Bell question, Belichick was asked about managing the roster throughout the season.
“Something you have to constantly evaluate and stay on top of and and plan for because you never know when you’re gonna need players at every position, not just [running back],” Belichick said. “So, Nick Caserio and Dave Ziegler and and their staffs do a great job of staying on top of all the personnel throughout the league and kind of what our next potential options would be depending on what we’re looking for at every position, but even at an individual position, there could be two or three different options at that position based on the need that you have. So, try to stay on top of it and continue to monitor the depth. Where we are today and where we were last week and where we might be in a few days could be completely different, so it’s just something that you have to constantly monitor.”
While Bell’s tenure in New York was less-than-ideal and his production was diminished compared to his spectacular career in Pittsburgh, he was still somewhat productive, given the circumstances. He rushed for 789 yards in 15 games last year, while catching 66 passes for 461 yards. His 1,250 yards from scrimmage were 413 more than the next-best player on the team. In limited action this year, he rushed for 74 yards on 19 carries while catching three passes for 39 yards.
In terms of past public comments made on the record, which Belichick referred to on Wednesday, here is one from last September:
“Bell is clearly one of the top backs in the league. Outstanding with the ball in his hands. Great receiver. Just a really hard matchup player. He does an excellent job of breaking tackles. He’s a hard guy to get on the ground whether he spins, jumps over guys, makes them miss in the open field, puts his shoulder down and runs through them.”
“He’s a very explosive player. Yeah, if it’s there, he’ll hit it. If it’s not, he does an excellent job of setting blockers up and making defenders commit, and then finding space and going. You don’t see him run into the back of his blockers and run into a pile and things like that. He makes guys commit and then he finds space and is able to get to it. He’s an excellent player.”
–Bill Belichick, September 18, 2019
That being said, Belichick’s team always seemed to manage the threat of Bell whenever given the opportunity. Bell has rushed for 377 yards and one touchdown on 94 carries in five games vs. New England, while catching 24 passes for 215 yards with no touchdowns. His best performance came in December 2017 (The Jesse James Game), when he rushed for 117 yards and a score on 24 carries while catching five balls for 48 yards. But he’s had more duds, including an injury-shortened 20-yard performance in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, and a 3.2-yard average in his two games vs. New England last year.
Still, despite the unique circumstances and despite the crowded backfield in Foxboro, it would be very un-Belichick-like to completely pass up on an opportunity to add talent for short money. That is why early reports said the Patriots at least looked into Bell’s availability.
A report on Thursday indicated that the Patriots are not in the mix …
Le’Veon Bell currently plans to sign with one of three teams, per source: Dolphins, Chiefs, Bills. Barring change, Bell will decide among these teams as early as today. Steelers reunion unlikely at this point.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) October 15, 2020
… which is not terribly surprising.
Nonetheless, until Bell signs with that next team, the Patriots can’t ever be fully removed from the radar.
UPDATE: According to one reporter, the Pats are in the sweepstakes.
Dolphins are indeed trying to seal the deal on Bell but the Patriots have jumped in trying to thwart those plans, sources say. Bills also involved. https://t.co/9eTd9Zg3zc
— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) October 15, 2020
Sounds like this one is getting interesting.
FINAL UPDATE: Whatever the Dolphins and Patriots tried to do to get Bell, it wasn’t enough. Bell is joining the Chiefs.