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Le'Veon Bell - Still a Fantasy First-Rounder?


We are largely in uncharted territory when it comes to Le'Veon Bell. If there has been a previous instance of an elite player sitting out a full season and changing teams, I'm not aware of it.

We last saw Bell play football in 2017. As a Steeler, Bell benefited from one of the league's best offensive lines, a top quarterback, and an overall excellent offense. After not playing for the entirety of 2018, we have to try and figure out the combined impact of a new team and not playing for a full season.

He is established as an elite running back, is just 27 years old, and should be fresh after a year-long hiatus. But does he warrant a first-round pick in 2019?

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Plenty of Pros

In 2017, Bell led the NFL with 406 touches. Back in 2016, although playing in just 12 games, Bell actually averaged more fantasy points per game than David Johnson. We have never known a Le'Veon Bell that was anything other than an elite fantasy asset.

One aspect of Bell's game that we should not worry about is his opportunity. The Jets have very little behind Bell on the depth chart and, even so, Bell is far too talented to share a backfield. 400 touches is certainly within his range of outcomes. Even with massive volume, it is foolish to think that Bell's ceiling, or even his expected performance, is anywhere close to what it was in Pittsburgh.

Bell's patient running style relies on an offensive line opening up holes allowing him to shoot through them. In 2018, the Jets offensive line ranked dead last in adjusted line yards and stuff percentage. While it is reasonable to expect an improvement, the Jets offensive line still projects to fall in the lower third of the league. Will Bell's running style work behind a weak offensive line? If not, will Bell be able to modify his game to deal with an offensive line that can't block? These are questions that I do not have the answer to. If I did, there wouldn't be a question over whether Bell is still worth a first round pick in fantasy - we would know for sure one way or the other.

I can confidently say that I do not think Bell's talent has gone anywhere. I also think that 100+ targets is likely. Bell's floor is probably 2018 David Johnson. His ceiling is the problem. Sam Darnold is not Ben Roethlisberger and the Jets passing game does not pose quite the threat the Steelers did, which helped open up the run (because it has been proven that the passing game opens up the run, not the other way around). That certainly will cap Bell's touchdown upside, but the lower caliber passing game also could mean more targets for Bell.

Last season, Elijah McGuire was the best fantasy running back on the Jets, averaging 11.3 ppg. In order for Bell to be worth a first-round pick, we need to be able to reasonably project approximately 17 ppg (last season eight running backs averaged over 20 ppg, which is the most since 2012, which is as far back as I checked and unlikely to happen again). Assuming a full 16 games, we need to get Bell to 272 fantasy points. Can we do it?

 

Path to RB1

Last season, the Jets scored 11 rushing touchdowns. I do not think it is fair to give all 11 of those to Bell. I think eight is a much more realistic number. We can tack on two receiving touchdowns. The Jets rushed for 1,622 yards. I don't feel comfortable giving Bell more than 1,100 of those and even that feels high. Jets running backs had a total of 599 receiving yards on 68 total receptions. It is exceedingly difficult to project Bell's receiving totals. He's obviously a far better receiver than the Jets' medley of running backs in 2018 and he will have more pass plays designed for him, but defenses also know this and will account for this.

Over his career, Bell has averaged five receptions per game, and that was on a team that consistently had elite receiving options. I'm okay with giving Bell 80 receptions at seven yards per reception (which is lower than his career average of 8.5). So we've got him at 1660 total yards, 80 receptions, and 10 touchdowns. That totals 306 fantasy points or 19.1 ppg. If Bell can achieve the above, he will be well worth a late first round pick.

My concern is that I think what I just projected is just about Bell's ceiling. Even if Darnold takes an expected step forward, the Jets offensive line would need to improve to at least average for Bell to meet or exceed my projections. If Darnold does not improve and, more importantly, if the Jets offensive line remains bad, Bell could very well end up struggling to reach 1000 rushing yards with his yards per reception dropping even lower than I projected, resulting in something like 400 receiving yards to go along with a total of just six touchdowns. Either way, Bell is going to need to rack up the receptions to remain an RB1.

 

Conclusion

Bell's ceiling is a mid RB1. His volume is so secure that his floor is a high RB2. Bell does not have the upside to be a true game-changer like 2016 DJ, 2017 Todd Gurley, or 2018 Christian McCaffrey. However, Bell is a safe pick at the back end of the first round and unlikely to be the type of first-round landmine that derails your season. I count eight players I would definitely take over Bell: Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, Melvin Gordon, Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins. After these guys, if you want to make Bell your selection, feel free to do so.

In conclusion, Bell is still worthy of a first-round selection, but he is certainly not a lock to be taken there, nor should you feel bad if you choose to pass on him in favor of Joe Mixon, James Conner, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or Michael Thomas, to name a few.

 

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