2014 Player Spotlight: Reggie Bush & Joique Bell
Adam Harstad provides an overview of what to expect from Detroit’s top RBs this season.
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The 2013 Detroit Lions were something of an oddball. Never much known as a hotbed of fantasy production for the RB position, the Lions abandoned their endless search for a true #2 receiver behind Calvin Johnson and instead funneled all of that passing production to their duo of talented pass-catching backs, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. The result was surprising, as Bush and Bell finished the season 10th and 17th at their position in standard scoring systems. In point per reception leagues, their production was even more dramatic, as Bush finished as the 7th best RB and Bell finished 14th. An owner could have easily started both Detroit backs all season long and finished the year with one of the most productive RB corps in his fantasy league. As a team, Detroit’s RBs scored more total fantasy points than all but three other NFL franchises. You would think that such an amazing season would have owners buzzing about Detroit’s RB situation heading into 2014.
You would think wrong.
Based on current Footballguys ADP value, Reggie Bush is being selected as the 15th running back off the board. Are owners expecting Joique Bell to pick up the slack? It would appear otherwise, as Bell’s fall has been even more dramatic, all the way down to the 28th running back selected. Are owners perhaps worried that Theo Riddick, Detroit’s 3rd string RB who has been drawing rave reviews this offseason, might eat into that total pie? If they are, they certainly aren’t showing it; Footballguys’ ADP data lists the top 82 running backs by draft position, and Riddick’s name is nowhere to be seen on that list.
What gives? Why are fantasy owners so pessimistic about Detroit’s running backs? Are their fears warranted, or does Detroit’s backfield present an opportunity to buy brand-name production at a steep discount?
Concern #1- Bush and Bell are not that talented
Reggie Bush has been in the league nine years and he is playing for his third team. He has never been named to a pro bowl. Last year was just the second time in his career that he ran for 1,000 yards, and his career high is a paltry 1,086 yards. Last year was the first time in his career that he finished as an RB1 in standard scoring leagues (though he’d flirted with that mark a few times before). Especially relative to the expectations set for him when he entered the league as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and #2 overall draft pick, it’s hard to call Reggie Bush’s career to date anything other than a disappointment. Further, after spending so long getting to this point, Bush is already 29 years old, well past the point where running backs have historically begun to decline.
Joique Bell, on the other hand, has outperformed his pre-draft expectations… but only because pre-draft expectations were nonexistent. An undrafted free agent from Wayne State, Bell’s first years in the league were tumultuous. He was signed by Buffalo, then waived in September. He was signed away by the Eagles, then waived in November. He was signed away by the Colts, then waived in December. He wound up back on the Eagles’ practice squad until he was signed away by New Orleans, who waived him the following September and signed him to their practice squad. The Detroit Lions jumped into the mix in December of Bell’s second year, signing him to their active roster where he has been ever since. With the late start to his career and the years spent bouncing around, Joique Bell is already 28 years old, entering an age where most running backs begin to decline.
In short, neither Bush, (the disappointing over-the-hill veteran receiving his third opportunity), nor Bell, (the unknown over-the-hill journeyman on his fourth team), looks like a prototypical fantasy star. And strictly in terms of rushing ability, they might not be. Fortunately for fantasy owners, both Bush and Bell are major weapons in the passing game. For his career, Reggie Bush averages 65 receptions per 16 games. Over the last two seasons, Bell has caught 52 and 53 passes. Since yards tend to come in big chunks in the passing game, both backs provide solid returns in all leagues, but especially those leagues that give special preference to backs that catch passes. Both may be average as runners, but Detroit is one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league, and both backs are more than capable of putting up huge numbers through the air.
Concern #2- Detroit is changing its offensive system
Superficially, this concern is very compelling. Over the last three seasons, Detroit has ranked 5th, 1st, and 1st in pass attempts, averaging 680 attempts over that span. That is an awful lot of passing volume, and seems primed to regress. Additonally, as alluded to earlier, Detroit has always struggled to find quality pass catchers. Over the last three seasons, roughly a quarter of Detroit’s completions have gone to Calvin Johnson (302 total), a quarter have gone to their RBs (302 total), a quarter have gone to the TEs (301 total), and a quarter have gone to all other receivers (346 total). Offseason acquisitions of former Seahawk Golden Tate and top-10 draft pick Eric Ebron might skew those ratios a bit away from the running backs. Detroit’s new offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, comes over from a New Orleans offense that emphasizes spreading the ball around. When first hired, Joe Lombardi spoke about his offense in Detroit, saying “You’re going to see some differences, but the playbook we’re starting from is the Saints playbook, so it certainly will be very similar.”
Wrong. You see, in PPR leagues, New Orleans was one of the three teams whose RBs scored more fantasy points than Detroit’s last year. In fact, the New Orleans Saints produced more points from the RB position than any team other than Kansas City, who was buoyed by the sublime Jamaal Charles. New Orleans’ RBs caught more passes than any other backfield in the league last year, a whopping 54% more than Detroit’s backs combined for. And this was not a 1-year aberration. Since Sean Payton joined the Saints in 2006, the 32 NFL teams have combined for 256 total team-seasons. In PPR scoring, New Orleans’ RBs have combined for six of the top twelve fantasy finishes over that span. The 2011 New Orleans Saints scored more fantasy points from the RB position in PPR leagues than any NFL team since 2006. The 2006 Saints, (featuring Reggie Bush), rank 4th. The 2008 and 2009 Saints, (also featuring Reggie Bush), rank 6th and 7th. The 2012 Saints rank 9th. Last year’s Saints rank 12th. As an entire unit, the New Orleans Saints RBs have outscored fantasy juggernauts like the 2006 San Diego Chargers (powered by Tomlinson’s record-setting season) and the 2002-2005 Kansas City Chiefs (featuring Priest Holmes at his peak). If I were playing in a PPR league, I cannot think of six words that could possibly have me feeling more excited than “our offense will resemble the Saints’”. Footballguys’ Data Dominator has data on team totals going back to 2002. Over that entire span, five of the top six seasons in terms of receptions by RBs have belonged to Sean Peyton’s Saints. Two of those five seasons even date back to the Reggie Bush era.
The Saints don’t feel like they’ve been such an amazing fantasy team for running backs, but that’s because New Orleans’ production has typically been divided four ways. Last year, New Orleans gave heavy work to Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, and Darren Sproles. In 2012, it was Thomas, Ingram, Sproles, and Chris Ivory. In 2010, (by far the least productive season of the Sean Payton era), the RB position was decimated by injuries and production was split between Ivory, Thomas, Julius Jones, Ladell Betts, and Reggie Bush. In 2009, it was Thomas, Bush, and Mike Bell. Even a massive pie will not yield exciting fantasy production if you divide it into enough different pieces. Even divided up, though, the Saints’ backfield has produced huge value. Since 2006, and completely discounting the injury-ravaged 2010 campaign, New Orleans has produced eleven top-24 finishes and fourteen top-36 finishes in just seven years. That’s an average of 1.5 fantasy starters a year in PPR leagues.
That, remember, was with the pie being split into three or four pieces. If Detroit continues with their preference to divide that pie up between just two backs- Reggie Bush and Joique Bell– then both backs should radically outperform their current ADP in PPR leagues. Even if Theo Riddick winds up stealing some snaps and generally being a third wheel, there should be more than enough work for both Detroit backs to put up strong fantasy numbers. And if either main Detroit back gets injured, there’s plenty of upside for a monster top-5 overall fantasy finish in that offense.
And while PPR has undoubtedly been a massive boon to New Orleans’ running back production, it’s not like they haven’t scored well in standard scoring, too. New Orleans’ 2011 season ranks second behind Tomlinson’s 2006 Chargers in total fantasy points. New Orleans still has three of the top ten and five of the top thirty fantasy finishes since 2006. The numbers are not quite as eye-popping, but there is more than enough room to support a pair of high-quality fantasy backs on the Detroit Lions, even with plenty of other weapons elsewhere on that offense.
- Bush and Bell are both key cogs in the passing game and should supplement their rushing production with huge receiving numbers.
- Detroit is moving to an offensive system that might just be the single most productive fantasy offense, in PPR scoring, that the league has ever seen.
- Both Bush and Bell are being drafted much lower than they finished the season last year, providing huge value at a nice discount.
- Both Bush and Bell are on the wrong side of the aging curve and could easily see an age-related decline in their performance.
- Detroit has added several new weapons to their passing game, which may divert looks away from the running backs.
- Detroit’s new offensive system has historically divided its production among three or four different running backs rather than concentrating it in the hands of just one or two backs.
There are causes for concern surrounding Detroit’s running backs, but the simple fact is that most fantasy owners still remain blissfully oblivious to the massive, league-altering upside that situation currently presents. Detroit is a good bet to complete even more passes to their RBs than they did a year ago, which means there’s room for them to improve even on last year’s 4th-place overall fantasy finish, especially in leagues that award a full point for every reception. Both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are productive backs who find themselves in arguably the greatest system for PPR production the league has ever seen. Both seem like tremendous values, and unlike in many backfields, both could easily be productive from week to week. Fantasy owners should be happy to draft either back individually or even to draft both backs and pair them together, perhaps even spending a late-round flier on Theo Riddick as a hedge. There is a very good chance that, regardless of how 2014 shakes out, everyone holding a piece of Detroit’s backfield will wind up very pleased with the outcome.
Joique Bell Projections:
New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi discusses what Detroit’s offense might look like:
New Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is expected to call the plays on game day. And those plays will draw heavily from his time with the New Orleans Saints.
Lombardi said he has already begun authoring the Lions’ new playbook. That process is starting with the Saints’ playbook, then amending it based on Detroit’s personnel and the philosophies of the coaching holdovers.
“I think there will be a lot of similarities, but there’s going to be some differences,” Lombardi said Friday during his first news conference with local media. “I came in and sat in that first offensive staff meeting, and I was the only one who knew our terminology. The good thing is you start talking about the offense and presenting it to the staff, and all of the sudden ideas start coming at you and you think about them. There certainly will be some adjustments.
“You’re going to see some differences, but the playbook we’re starting from is the Saints playbook, so it certainly will be very similar.”
Joe Lombardi discusses the potential usage of his RBs (courtesy of @DaveBirkett):
Chase Stuart discusses Bush’s 2013 production:
Reggie Bush ranked 8th in both FP/G and FP/Q last season, yet he’s being drafted as just the 16th RB in both PPR and non-PPR leagues right now. Why? Presumably this is because of Joique Bell, but the Lions backup running back has a ADP of just RB25 in PPR leagues. As a unit, all Lions running backs ranked 4th in fantasy points in both PPR and non-PPR leagues last year. Bush should see the vast majority of touches, and a top-ten finish is likely if he stays healthy.
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