Fantasy Impact: Le’Veon Bell to the Jets
In what was likely the least surprising of moves in free agency, the Jets have reached an agreement with Le’Veon Bell. The four-year contract is worth a reported $52.5 million where he can earn up to $61 million incentives and $35 million guaranteed.
After sitting out the 2018 season, it’ll be good to see Bell back on the football field. There were rumors about the size of the contract the Steelers had offered him prior to last season, but all we really know is that he could have made $15 million while playing under the franchise tag. Did him holding out work out in his favor? That’s debatable, but we’re here to talk about what this signing means going forward.
While with the Steelers, Bell averaged 129.0 total yards per game, which ranks as the most all-time among players who’ve played in at least 50 games. No matter what offense you’re a part of, that’s special. Of course, we have to note that he also averaged 24.9 touches per game, something that’s unheard of for a running back in today’s NFL. In fact, there was just one running back who averaged more than 22.5 touches per game in 2018 alone. He was special in Pittsburgh, but he also had massive opportunity.
Now headed to New York, many will have their expectations sky-high, but will he get close to that workload with the Jets? After snagging Isaiah Crowell in free agency last offseason, the Jets ran the ball just 355 times and completed just 68 passes to the running back position. For the entire running back group, that amounted to 26.4 touches. By comparison, the Steelers running backs averaged 29.9 touches per game while Bell was on the team in 2017.
SLOW AND UNPREDICTABLE OFFENSE
Not only is Bell veering into a world outside Pittsburgh where he had one of the best run-blocking units in all of football and a borderline Hall of Fame quarterback, but he’s also walking onto a team with a newly-installed offense with a poor offensive line and young quarterback. That newly-installed offense is going to be run by Adam Gase, someone who has offered little consistency in his approach over the last three years as a head coach. One thing we do know is that he doesn’t run an up-tempo offense. Here are the Dolphins ranks in plays per game with Gase as the head coach: 2018 – 32nd, 2017 – 22nd, 2016 – 32nd. So, he ranked dead last in plays per game in two of the three years. That’s not great for fantasy production no matter what position you play.
Because of the lack of plays, the Dolphins running backs averaged just 334 carries and 71 receptions per season. That would amount to 25.3 touches per game available. Let’s be clear, just because the running backs didn’t get massive touch totals in Miami, it doesn’t automatically mean they won’t get them in New York, but it certainly doesn’t help that Gase’s offense is slow-paced. It also doesn’t help that the Dolphins running backs totaled just 10 rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons combined.
The next unpredictable factor is how Bell will produce behind a subpar offensive line, as we’ve never really seen that with him before. The Jets running backs combined to average a relatively weak 4.05 yards per carry behind them last season, while that number was down at 3.98 yards per carry in 2017. The Jets were expected to address the offensive line in free agency, but they’ve signed no one and actually lost both Spencer Long and James Carpenter to other teams. While they weren’t anything to write home about, they were starters. They did trade for Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele, who had a down year in 2018, but it’s clear that the Jets will need to address the offensive line in the draft, though they really should add some stable guard depth with players who are still available in free agency. Bell’s best attribute as a runner is his patience, which the Steelers offensive line allowed to flourish. If he sits back and waits for a hole to open behind their current offensive line, he’s not going to gain much of anything.
Knowing what we do about Gase’s offense and the Jets offensive line, we’re going to need Bell to contribute heavily in the pass-game if we want him to post top-tier numbers. Again, we have a new offense, so it’s going to skew the numbers a bit, but a lot of quarterbacks show a tendency to target certain positions more than others. During Sam Darnold‘s rookie year, he directed 74 of his 414 pass attempts at running backs, or 17.8 percent. It’s a bit below average, but part of that can be blamed on the personnel, as Crowell isn’t a great pass-catcher, while Bilal Powell got hurt, and then Elijah McGuire and Trenton Cannon were inconsistent. Just one issue, however. The receiver corps was not very good, so that number could have been a tad inflated. Robby Anderson and Darnold didn’t connect at first, Quincy Enunwa played well in the slot but struggled when they moved him to the perimeter, and Jermaine Kearse may not play in the NFL anymore. The Jets just added slot receiver Jamison Crowder in free agency, which gives them a massive upgrade in the receiver corps and potentially more targets taken away from the running back position. It’s another variable that has us throwing our hands up in the air.
Most will think that I don’t like Bell after reading this, but I assure you that I do love what he can bring to an offense. With that, I don’t think you should be drafting him to your fantasy team in 2019. We talked about the offensive line concerns, we talked about the slow-paced Gase offense concerns, and we talked about the target concerns. While some of those concerns can be addressed, it’s not something you should invest a top-15 pick in to find out. He’s likely going to finish as a top-10 back, but his upside is severely capped. Do you remember what happened to David Johnson last year? He was someone I urged readers not to draft due to the situation he was in and this situation is eerily similar for Bell. They’re not going to be a top-10 scoring offense, they don’t have a quarterback who continually checks down, and they don’t have an offense that’s running 65-plus plays per game in order to mask the inefficiency. You cannot win your fantasy league with your first pick, but you can most certainly help yourself lose. Remove as much risk and as many question marks as you can from the players you select in the first few rounds. My early 2019 projection: 290 carries, 1,203 yards, 6 rushing touchdowns, 85 targets, 62 receptions, 511 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.
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