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Why is Le’Veon Bell making it so hard? It’s like he doesn’t even care about fantasy football or something! With his holdout moving into Week 2 of the regular season, Bell may be losing more than $853,000 each week. He may also be losing his grip on his starting job when and if he does report to the team.

Enter James Conner with 31 rushes for 135 yards and two rushing touchdowns in his first start. This not only shows the Steelers are fine at running back without Bell, but it also shows what has been thought for many years now by some analysts. The success of running backs in Pittsburgh is more of a scheme fit for runners and not totally about the talent of the running back involved. Whether it be Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or now James Conner, it is the line which makes the running back look good, not the other way around.

While Bell will discover this for himself when he ends up on a new team next season and finds tough sledding, for our concerns here, all we care about is how it affects Conner and what we need to do with this situation as fantasy owners who suddenly own the new RB1.

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Choose Wisely

There are three scenarios to take into account when deciding what to do with James Conner, both as an owner of him or Bell and as someone looking to trade for either player. The first scenario is that Bell returns in the next week or two, takes back the job and Conner is relegated to the bench again, returning to irrelevance. The second is that Bell holds out either until Week 10, which is most likely as then the season will still count towards free agency, or possibly until the end of the season but Conner stays the running back all season. In this case, Conner is an RB1 which was drafted at the price of a late-round flier. The third and final scenario is Bell holds out until Week 10, returns and immediately gets his job back for the rest of the season. Cases can be made for all of these things to happen, but all of them also mean different things for the value of each of the players involved.

If you are in the camp that believes Bell is returning in a week or two and taking over the backfield, then you will either want to hold onto Bell if you are the owner or try to trade for him if you have a desperate owner in your league. If you are the Conner owner in this situation, you will want to find that person in your league who thinks Bell is never coming back and get a deal done with him or her before it is proven one way or the other.

Obviously, there are risks involved as you may be wrong, and you may have just kept Bell all season for nothing, or possibly given Conner away for less than you could have gotten had he had a few more great weeks. It would seem that any Conner owner who is already set at RB should at least entertain offers while his stock is sky high.

In the second scenario, which is the best for James Conner owners, Bell either holds out all season or he sits out until Week 10 but Conner is so entrenched as the starting running back, he keeps the job and finishes the season as a top-five running back. Not only would Conner owners love this scenario, but the Steelers offensive line would also love it. The Pittsburgh coaching staff would have to agree, as they would not have to rearrange the offense halfway through the season to fit in a player who will only remain for the rest of the season. I think if Bell does hold out until Week 10, it will be unlikely he ever gets the starting job back this season. Conner is the future at the position for the team and they will ride or die with him this season, making sure he knows he is the guy and is not just going to be thrown aside for another player when they finally decide to show up.

If you are in the boat which thinks this is the most likely way things will play out then you will want to trade Bell before his value is severely compromised by a longer hold out. If you are the Conner owner, keep him and use him in your starting lineup as your flex position every week. Yes, I said flex. Why, you may ask? Well, if you are like me, you got Conner in the late rounds of your draft, so you have two starting running backs on your team already. If you need to switch one of them out for Conner, you should do so. Just make sure Conner is in your lineup as long as Le’Veon Bell is at home tweeting about Steelers games and not actually playing in them.

With the final scenario being not only the least likely but also the worst for everyone involved fantasy and otherwise, we still need to take a look at it. If Le’Veon Bell were to sit out until Week 10 before coming back and immediately get his job back, this would be bad on many levels. As described before, if James Conner were to perform up to the same level he did in Week 1 and still lose his job to a player who is not going to be on the team next season, this would send a bad message to Conner. He will lose his confidence going into next season and this will hinder his progression in the offense. This will also hurt fantasy owners as he will have no value in the stretch of the season when you need him the most, heading into the playoffs. The best thing you can hope for in this case is to realize he is going to lose his job and be able to trade him at his peak in Week 8 or 9 for a haul and then have Bell show up in week 10 and start from the get-go.

Again, this is the least likely scenario as if Bell holds out this long and Conner is as good as advertised, you cannot pull him from the lineup and at best for Bell he would become Conner’s backup for the rest of the season.

 

Can Conner Ever Match Bell's Value?

The issue with Conner and the reason people were worried about him replacing Bell was not due to his rushing ability, but his catching ability. From his college days at Pitt, we knew he could rush the ball as he had over 2,000 yards as the ACC freshman of the season and an additional 1,635 rushing yards as a senior in 2016. With his five catches for 57 yards on six targets in a monsoon in Week 1, he showed those worries may be unfounded and not only can the coaching staff trust him, but more importantly for his production when he is on the field, Ben Roethlisberger can trust throwing the ball to him like he did with Bell.

No matter what you think is going to happen, whether Bell is going to come back in the next few weeks or hold out for even longer, you will need to make a decision on what you want to do. Overpaying for Conner seems to be more attractive than for Bell at this point. Even if Bell does come back soon, he has missed all of camp and will need a week or two to get into playing shape much like last season. After this, he will start slow in his first few games and may be worked back into the offense slowly. If this is the case, he may only be a starting back for at most 10 games at the end of the season. While Ezekiel Elliott made this work in 2017 as he was the RB9 while playing in only 10 games, is it a risk you are willing to take? Bell is older than Elliott and has more than 1,500 more career touches. Not only has Bell lost a lot of his fantasy value, he has also cost himself a lot of money in free agency. For the rest of this season, he could be a shell of the talent we have seen in recent years and in dynasty leagues, he will fall even further as he will be going to an unknown situation which will not end well for him. Think Emmitt Smith in Arizona or Jerry Rice with the Raiders.

The real story here is not the Bell holdout or even the Conner breakout. No, the real story is seeing someone overcome so much in life to make it to the pinnacle of his profession - the NFL. Dealing with cancer, chemotherapy and recovery only to be drafted by and start for his hometown team is a dream. A dream very few will ever know. His story speaks to me on not only a fantasy level, but a personal level as I have dealt with a lot in my own life and am powering through. Conner is a player we should all want to root for.

The Steelers coaches love him, the players love him, and the NFL community loves him. When it comes to fantasy or otherwise, you should love him too, as he will be an RB1 as long as he is in the starting lineup.

Keep him. Ride him to the playoffs. And hopefully at the end of the season, you'll be hoisting a championship trophy with him leading the way.

 

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