Le’Veon Bell Isn’t Worth A First-Round Pick (2019 Fantasy Football)
It seems that almost everyone is willing to overlook the fact that Le’Veon Bell has left what was a top-six scoring offense with one of the best offensive lines in football for a team that is likely to be a bottom-six scoring team with a bottom-five offensive line. How do I know that? He’s being drafted as a first-round pick.
Not only has the situation deteriorated, but Bell has been away from the game for over a year now. Age is still on his side, though he’s not a “young” running back anymore, as he turned 27 years old in February. He’s shown the ability to be an elite running back in the NFL, but have his circumstances changed enough for you to fade him in fantasy drafts?
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Yes, Bell was a phenomenal player for the Steelers. However, what most don’t realize is that Bell had an offensive line that allowed his best attribute to shine; his patience. The best way to show that in consumable data is the fact that he averaged a massive 1.76 yards before contact throughout his five years in Pittsburgh, including 1.84 yards over his final four seasons (when he was dominant in fantasy football). Just how good is that? Well, there were just six teams who produced that for their running backs last year alone. What were the Jets, you ask? They ranked 27th, giving their running backs 1.14 yards before contact in 2018. Just once in Bell’s career did he average more than 3.0 yards after contact, which tells you just how much you should lower expectations when it comes to his production on the ground.
Not just yards before contact, but the Steelers were also in scoring position quite often. During his four years of fantasy dominance (from 2014-2017), the Steelers ranked 7th, 7th, 12th, and 5th in team scoring. Why is that important? I wrote an article recently on just how important team scoring is (read it here), and over the last seven years, there’s been no running back to finish top-six on a team outside the top-half of the league in scoring. The Jets have ranked 23rd in each of the last two years, a far cry from the top-16.
THE GASE EFFECT
Some will say the Jets of old are gone as the new coaching staff comes to town, and that’s 100 percent true, though it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Remember when Adam Gase was considered a young offensive mind for what he did while in Denver? Well, since he lost Peyton Manning as his quarterback, his offenses have ranked 17th, 23rd, 26th, and 28th in scoring. That’s… not good.
Looking even closer at the production, the run-game is what suffered the most on those teams. Over the last four years in Gase’s career, here are his team’s average ranks in each rushing category: Attempts (21st), yards (17th), and touchdowns (22nd). Over the last two years in Miami, his running backs combined for just 10 rushing touchdowns on 645 carries. That’s one every 64.5 carries while having Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore, and Damien Williams for most of them. The league average in 2018 was one rushing touchdown every 30.9 carries.
The Jets defense will be better than the Dolphins defense, though, right? That should allow for more running of the football. Well, Gase doesn’t run a fast offense and it doesn’t allow for a whole lot of production. The Dolphins averaged just 58.2 plays per game over the last three years with Gase in charge, which is far below the league average of 62.9 plays per game. In fact, there was just one other team who averaged less plays per game than that in 2018 alone, the Cardinals. How did that look for fantasy production, David Johnson owners?
“But Mike, what about his contributions in the pass-game?” That’s a fair question, though the lack of plays per game will rear their ugly head once again. Even when it comes to pass attempts, Gase-led teams (after Manning) have ranked 25th or worse in 3-of-4 seasons. It’s also worth noting that teams around the NFL with new head coaches average 24.4 fewer pass attempts than their previous season (can find the research on that here). And it’s not as if Bell was the only player the Jets added in free agency, as Jamison Crowder was signed early in the process. His average depth of target is closer to Bell’s than you’d like, as he eats up those intermediate targets over the middle of the field, something Bell didn’t have to contend with in Pittsburgh. Gase has already stated that Crowder is going to be a big part of the offense, which makes sense considering he was one of the first free agents signed. Not to mention the ascension of Robby Anderson and Chris Herndon, who many believe can have breakout seasons (I’m not one of them).
No matter which way you try to spin it, Bell is a bad bet for first-round production on his new team despite his track record of success. His offensive line doesn’t create much room for him to operate, his offense won’t run many plays, he has to contend for targets on the limited plays they do have, and he won’t score many touchdowns on a team that’s projected to finish in the bottom-five in scoring. He’s also coming off a year of not playing football.
The one thing you can say about Bell that you can’t about 75 percent of the other starters in the league is that he has no competition for the starting job and it’s not as if they’re going to bench a guy who is making $27 million guaranteed over the next two years. But does that make him worth of a first-round pick? Are you going to win your fantasy league because you drafted Bell in the first-round? No. You can’t win your fantasy league in the first-round, but you can sure help lose it. My take is that Bell will likely finish as a top-12 running back, but he won’t be nearly as sexy as he was during his time in Pittsburgh. If you can land him in the second-round, he’s fine there as a running back with a relatively safe floor, but is that how you want your fantasy season to be defined?