After a year-long hiatus, running back Le’Veon Bell is back in the NFL. During the late hours of the night, the New York Jets signed the free agent running back to a four-year, $52.5 million contract. Bell will immediately soar up fantasy football draft boards, but should he? There’s no denying the talent, but smart fantasy owners will say no to Le’Veon Bell and draft a better player in the first round.
Don’t Overdraft Le’Veon Bell in Fantasy Football
Even though he took a year away from the game, Le’Veon Bell still has a lot of wear on his tires. The 2013 second-round pick enters the 2019 season with 1,541 touches throughout his five-year playing career. The human body can only take so many hits, and this durability concern is compounded by Bell’s extensive history of lower-body injuries. Most notably, the running back suffered an MCL injury back in 2015, limiting him to just six games. A 24-year old Bell recovered just fine, but his knees will start to wear down as he approaches 30.
Taking a year off may have helped his body recover, but he didn’t magically stop the aging process. Bell is going to be 27 at the start of the 2019 season, an age at which most running backs start to wear down. Running backs have a notoriously short shelf life, and Bell is especially susceptible to the cliff in production after taking such a heavy workload in Pittsburgh. His age and injury history are both massive red flags, and it’s also worth noting that Bell has multiple drug-related suspensions. If he fails another drug test, Bell could be suspended for a significant amount of time.
There’s a very real chance Bell’s best days are behind him, even if he was in a perfect situation. Unfortunately for Bell, he entered perhaps the worst situation possible.
His Situation is Terrible
Anyone who has ever watched Le’Veon Bell is all-too-familiar with his patented patience behind the line of scrimmage. Content with waiting for a hole to open, Bell is one of the most patient runners in the league with unmatched vision in the backfield. However, this running approach might not be successful with the New York Jets.
Part of the reason Bell’s running style worked is that the Steelers had one of the best offensive lines in the league. The Steelers offensive line was a top-eight run-blocking unit in four of Bell’s five seasons, per Football Outsiders. The only year it graded poorly was 2013, when Bell averaged just 3.5 yards-per-carry. Nobody is denying that Bell is a special player, but Pittsburgh’s fantastic run blocking allowed Bell’s intriguing running style to flourish.
The New York Jets offensive line is currently a hot mess. According to Football Outsiders, the unit was the worst run-blocking unit in the league in 2018. Adding Kelechi Osemele to the equation helps, but it’s not enough to fix a disastrous unit.
Even if Bell’s as healthy as he’s ever been, he won’t be nearly as productive. Running back production, by and large, is a product of good blocking and offensive line play. Bell doesn’t have that in New York, and his fantasy numbers will take a massive hit because of it.
The drop in offensive line play isn’t the only thing hurting Bell’s fantasy value. Back in Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell had one of the best passing attacks in football complementing his rushing attack. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were arguably the most lethal duo in the league, and opposing defenses gave Bell less attention while trying to stop the passing game.
That aerial threat does not exist in New York. Sam Darnold is a fine quarterback who showed flashes of potential, but he has a long way to go before reaching Ben Roethlisberger’s level. Likewise, Robby Anderson and the newly signed Jamison Crowder are solid receivers, but neither player has the ability to singlehandedly ruin a gameplan like Brown.
Bell will be the top focus of every opposing defense he faces. Even if he can play a full 16-game for just the second time in his career, will Bell be able to overcome a bad offensive line and added defensive focus with a mediocre quarterback? From this writer’s perspective – probably not.
He Might Not Care
At this point in his career, it’s no secret that Le’Veon Bell is in it for the money. At age 27, he knows he’s earned the last big-money contract he’ll ever get in the NFL. With no financial incentive to give it his all, Bell might not play as hard, knowing he’s already secured his paycheck. We’ve seen it happen multiple times around the league with guys like Jamie Collins, and Bell fits that profile to a tee. He doesn’t love the game of football, so why should he keep playing hard and putting his body on the line when money isn’t a worry?
Don’t believe me? Just read what Bell himself had to say back in 2013.
None of this is to say that Le’Veon Bell will be a bad player for the duration of his contract. He’s still a danger in the passing game and will see the majority of the carries in New York’s backfield. However, Bell is going to be a high first-round pick in fantasy football, and his production won’t come close to matching that high draft stock.
Last Word on Le’Veon Bell in Fantasy Football
Sitting out a year didn’t save Bell from the passage of time, and the talented running back is reaching the advanced age where running back production tends to take a nosedive. Bell’s already taking a massive beating throughout his career, suffering multiple lower-body injuries along the way. He’s only played a full 16-game season one time, so it’s incredibly likely that Bell misses time in 2019 and isn’t as effective when on the field.
Even if Bell is the same exact player he always was, the situation around him has gotten significantly worse. The Steelers had one of the best run-blocking lines in football, and Bell’s patient running style matched perfectly with Pittsburgh’s blocking. The New York Jets have arguably the worst run-blocking line in the league, so Bell won’t have the same holes to run through. His patient running style simply won’t work if there are a litany of defenders ready to hit Bell behind the line of scrimmage. When factoring in the added defensive focus thanks to a league-average passing attack, it’s hard to imagine Bell coming anywhere close to matching his production with Pittsburgh. Just ask David Johnson what happens when nothing around you functions correctly.
On top of all this is the genuine worry that Le’Veon Bell simply might not care anymore. The former second-round pick already secured his contract and he might not run as hard as he used. There are countless examples of players mailing it in after getting paid, and Bell fits the profile perfectly. All in all, there are far too many concerns to overlook with Bell. Let somebody else in your league make the mistake of selecting him with a top-five pick.
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