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Running Backs Are As Replaceable As Ever This Year. So Why Did Kansas City Pick Up Le’Veon Bell?

During Tuesday night’s rescheduled Buffalo-Tennessee game, the New York Jets announced they had released two-time All-Pro running back Le’veon Bell. The 0-5 Jets reportedly attempted to find a team willing to trade for Bell, but general manager Joe Douglas apparently found insufficient interest. Rather than keep Bell on the roster, New York opted to cut him outright and accept a dead-money cap hit of over $19 million. Although brief, Bell’s time in New York was profitable for him: In 17 games played as a Jet, Bell earned 1.7 times more than he earned during his six years and 62 games played as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

On Thursday night, Bell landed on his feet, upgrading from one of the worst teams in the NFL to the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Bell signed a one-year deal with the team, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. (Terms have not been disclosed.)

It’s a strange move for Kansas City. The Chiefs just spent their first-round draft pick (32nd overall) on RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire in April. It’s true that Kansas City has not been good rushing the football this year: They rank 27th in expected points added (EPA) per rushing play so far. But Bell is arriving directly from the team that ranks dead last. What exactly are the Chiefs hoping to gain with the Bell signing?

Running the football successfully in the NFL has more to do with scheme and line play than the player carrying the football. And this season has given us plenty more evidence that, in today’s NFL, running backs are largely interchangeable. Even the highest-paid players at the position haven’t offered much extra in the way of production this year compared with their backups.

Christian McCaffrey, the highest-paid back in the NFL, went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 2. In his absence, the Carolina Panthers turned to journeyman Mike Davis, a former fourth-round draft pick on his fourth NFL team who had averaged just 28.4 combined rushing and receiving yards per game over 49 career regular-season games. Yet since Davis has taken over as lead back, the previously winless Panthers have won three straight games. During the winning streak, Davis scored three touchdowns and averaged 117 yards from scrimmage per game — beating first-round pick McCaffery’s career average of 113 yards.

A similar story played out last weekend in Seattle. In Minnesota’s Week 5 game against the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings lost star running back Dalvin Cook in the third quarter to a groin injury. Cook’s backup, Alexander Mattison, stepped in and proceeded to rush for 112 yards on 20 carries, both career highs.

Before the season even started, the Jacksonville Jaguars cut ties with former first-round pick Leonard Fournette, opting instead to turn to James Robinson, an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State. While Jacksonville has just one win on the season, Robinson has provided the team with three touchdowns and 103.2 all-purpose yards per game — eclipsing the 101.1 yards Fournette averaged while with the Jaguars.

In Cleveland, Nick Chubb was off to a torrid start to the season, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and 88.1 all-purpose yards per game with four touchdowns for the Browns. But he suffered a knee ligament injury in Week 4, giving backup Kareem Hunt an opportunity. He filled in ably in the Week 5 win against Indianapolis, scoring a touchdown and amassing 93 yards from scrimmage.

The examples aren’t confined to 2020, either. In 2018, when Hunt was released by the same Kansas City Chiefs that just signed Bell, Damien Williams filled in without missing a beat, averaging 107.3 yards from scrimmage and 1.3 touchdowns in regular-season games he started, compared to 109 yards from scrimmage and 1.4 touchdowns for Hunt.

That same year, Todd Gurley injured his knee and missed the last two games of a season in which he was in the early conversation for league MVP. His replacement, C.J. Anderson — a journeyman on his fourth team of the yearplayed so well that Gurley was relegated to a backup role when he returned from injury during the playoffs.

Bell might not command a high price tag for the Chiefs, but history suggests they have the answer to whatever running back problem they might face already on the roster — and it’s likely not even a running back.

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Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.