After sitting out the 2018 season in hopes of a bigger contract, Le’Veon Bell is back on the field with the New York Jets. Bell was perhaps the best fantasy weapon in the league with the Steelers, but can the two-time All-Pro replicate his success with a completely different cast?
Fantasy Football 2019 Season Preview: Le’Veon Bell
Bell missed the entirety of the 2018 season in a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Holding out in hope of a new contract, Bell didn’t play a single snap while James Conner thrived in his absence. There’s nothing to break down from 2018, so let’s look back on what he did in past seasons.
Bell has been one of the elite running backs in football since 2014. Bell appeared in 49 games from 2014 to 2017, recording 4,476 rushing yards, 267 receptions, 2,361 receiving yards, and 34 combined touchdowns over that four-year span. These numbers, while obviously impressive on their own, don’t tell the whole story. Bell missed 11 games over this timeframe, meaning that his per-game averages were even better than his gaudy cumulative numbers. On a 16-game basis, Bell averaged 1,462 rushing yards, 87 receptions, 738 receiving yards, and a combined nine touchdowns.
Bell’s running style is one of the most iconic in the league. Notorious for his patience behind the line, Bell waits for his blocks to open and then bursts into the opposing secondary. It’s an unorthodox style, but Bell clearly makes it work. Additionally, he’s one of the best receiving backs in the league and can put up WR2 numbers in the passing game. Of course, all of this happened in the past, and unjustly rewarding a player for past production is bad fantasy strategy. Everything about Bell’s situation has changed, so let’s take a look at how the 27-year old will fare with the New York Jets.
Bell is going from arguably the best situation in the league to one of the worst. While in Pittsburgh, Bell had a top 10 quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and best receiver in football in Antonio Brown. Passing is significantly more dangerous than running, so defenses were primarily focused on stopping the passing attack. That won’t be the case in New York, where Sam Darnold is still developing and Robby Anderson isn’t scaring anyone.
Additionally, Bell’s running style might not work in New York. The Steelers had one of the best offensive lines in the league during four of Bell’s five seasons in Pittsburgh. The one year they didn’t, Bell averaged 3.5 yards-per-carry. Bell’s patient style is entirely reliant upon defensive linemen and linebackers not getting past the line of scrimmage. It worked in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers annually boasted a top 10 run-blocking offensive line, per Football Outsiders. This is far from the case in New York, where the Jets finished the 2018 season with the worst run-blocking line in the league. The Jets added a few pieces in 2019, but it’s impossible to completely fix a unit this bad overnight.
A good case-study for the importance of offensive line blocking is Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis. Bell is obviously more talented than Lewis, but the two share the same patient running style. Lewis was one of the best running backs in the league in 2017, averaging 5.0 yards-per-carry behind New England’s top-ranked run-blocking offensive line. However, Lewis averaged just 3.3 yards-per-carry in 2018 when running behind Tennessee’s 17th-ranked run-blocking offensive line. Put simply, it’s hard for that patient strategy behind the line to work when defenders are constantly getting behind the line of scrimmage.
This isn’t to say that Bell will have a Dion Lewis-esque 2019. Bell will be the unquestioned lead back in New York and should see at least 80 targets in the passing game. He should be an RB2 with RB1 upside, but he won’t be the same dominant force he was in Pittsburgh. A lot of Bell’s success was due to the situation around him, and New York isn’t nearly as good of a situation.
Average Draft Position
According to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, Le’Veon Bell is currently projected to be the eighth overall pick in half-PPR scoring formats. This puts him behind the elite players like Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott but ahead of guys like James Conner, David Johnson, and Nick Chubb.
Honestly, selecting Bell with the eighth overall pick feels like a reach. Bell is obviously a talented running back, but he’s in a bad situation and is starting to enter the twilight of his career. Sam Darnold isn’t Ben Roethlisberger and Robby Anderson isn’t Antonio Brown. Every opposing defense will make stopping Le’Veon Bell their primary focus, which obviously means Bell’s production is going to go down.
More important is the dramatic fall in offensive line quality. Pittsburgh consistently had one of the best offensive lines in the league, while the Jets had one of the worst. All running backs are dependent on blocking, but Bell and his patient running style is especially reliant on elite blocking. Bell’s ground production will take a dramatic nosedive unless the Jets somehow found a way to rebuild the worst offensive line in football overnight.
None of this even mentions that Bell has a long history of injuries and drug suspensions, so there’s a very real chance Bell won’t be around for a full 16-game season. Bell will still be a good fantasy weapon when on the field thanks to a high workload and his pass-catching prowess. However, you can do better in the first round. Fantasy Football Calculator expects wide receivers Davante Adams, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham to still be on the board at pick eight, and all would be better picks in 2019. If you’re set on taking a running back in the first round, go with James Conner or David Johnson instead.
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