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Le'Veon Bell Will Return as a Top-5 RB in 2019

Will Adam Gase and Sam Darnold vault Le’Veon Bell back into the elite tier of fantasy running backs in 2019? Dave Caban says no, but I say yes.

Le’Veon Is Dead

First things first. Let’s acknowledge that the 406 touches Bell saw in 2017 are staying in 2017; the 100-plus target-a-year player from Pittsburgh is probably gone forever. He’s not a good bet to beat out Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, or Saquon Barkley for the very top spot in fantasyland. But he can hold his ground among the mortals to stick in the top five overall, and here’s why.

Long Live Le’Veon

The Gase Effect

Over the last five years, the RB5 has averaged 283 PPR points on 267 rushes and 72 targets.1 This is more than doable for the “Life’s a Gamble” auteur, and it begins with his new head coach Adam Gase. At first blush, Gase has not been overly generous to his RBs. In his six years as head coach or offensive coordinator, the median team has delivered 70 receptions to the running back group as a whole.

YearTeamTeam RB RecsLeague RankRBs
2013DEN926thMoreno, Ball
2014DEN6823rdAnderson, Hillman
2015CHI7022ndForte, Langford
2016MIA6626thAjayi, Williams
2017MIA7024thAjayi, Drake
2018MIA7720thDrake, Gore

If we use this as a baseline, and give Bell a generous, but reasonable, 80 percent of Jets’ RB receptions2, that would put us at 56 receptions, which is right on target for the RB5 five-year average. That said, the recent emergence of Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Melvin Gordon as target hogs (not to mention David Johnson, and potentially some newcomers) does give us some pause that the bar may be raised for a top-five spot.
The good news for Bell is that Gase has rarely had a three-down back to lean on. In Miami, he preached three-down RBs who could run, catch, and block, and stay on the field for sustained drives. The secondary backs were ideally to spell a tired starter, not to sub in situationally. Unfortunately for Gase, he has rarely been happy with his RBs’ ability to handle all phases of the offense. In Miami, he split snaps severely between Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore and Kalen Ballage. He was so unhappy with Ajayi, that he dragged Arian Foster‘s battered husk in for a single healthy game, and gave him 13 carries and five targets. Foster is the player Gase wants, and the player he has signed Bell to be.
The closest that Gase has had to this kind of complete back was a 30-year-old Matt Forte, who carried the load for seven wonderful games before getting hurt and opening the door to a committee with Jeremy Langford, never to wear his cowbell again. In those seven games, Forte paced 311 carries and 82 targets. Predicting 300 carries for Bell is extreme, but it’s within his range of outcomes. Between his contract dollars, Gase’s professed RB preferences and history, and his competition in Elijah McGuire and Trenton Cannon, Bell should compete with the league leaders in terms of dominating touches. Gase has shown enough willingness to use his RBs in the passing game that we shouldn’t preclude a 65-plus catch season, which would put Bell directly in the mix for a top-five spot. Knowshon Moreno managed a 60-catch season for Gase in 2013, and that was while fending off a second-round pick in Montee Ball. Drake reached 73 targets last year, while playing less than 60 percent of Miami’s snaps. Bell has averaged an 81-percent catch rate over the last four seasons, so an 80-target season could be enough to deliver a top-five score.

Offensive Improvement

Assuming the requisite usage for Bell, do the Jets provide a strong enough offense to sustain an elite RB? The Cowboys only scored six points more than the Jets in 2018, so having an upper tier offense isn’t absolutely necessary, but obviously it helps. While the jury remains out on Gase, whose main claim to fame remains riding Peyton Manning’s coattails in Denver, at least he’s been studying the AFC East for the past three years. That’s more than can be said for outgoing Jets OC Jeremy Bates, whose only previous OC job went so poorly in Seattle3, that Golden Tate called for him to be fired from the Jets last year while he was a member of the Lions.


There was plenty of smoke all year about the players’ dissatisfaction with Bates, and the man is currently unemployed, so it’s reasonable to chalk up the coaching changes in the win column.
The addition of Jamison Crowder and Kelechi Osemele, as well as Bell himself, are definite upgrades. Chris Herndon should continue to improve in his second year at tight end, and will see more snaps than his rookie year. And more than anything, having a team at full health should help push the Jets offense solidly to the middle.
In 2018, both of the Jets best pass-catching backs had serious injuries. McGuire began the year with a broken foot, and Bilal Powell went on IR with a season-ending neck injury. Isaiah Crowell missed basically the last four games of the season with a foot injury. In the passing game, Terrelle Pryor tore his groin and was cut early in the year. Quincy Enunwa was hurt most of the second half of the season with an ankle injury. Rishard Matthews was a bust mid-year signing and went on IR with a hamstring injury.
jets RB injuries by snap report
The largest question in the Jets offense is Darnold, but it may matter the least for Bell. The very best offenses generate the most points for their RBs, but ultimately usage and touch distribution matter more than QB quality. The Broncos and Bears running backs scored more points than the Panthers RBs last year, for example, despite McCaffrey’s huge year. Case Keenum and Joe Flacco have delivered tons of fantasy points to their RBs in recent years, while Aaron Rodgers‘ RBs have ranked among the league’s lowest scoring.

Conclusion

The most likely scenario is that the Jets remain a below-average offense, and that Gase throws to the RBs at a below-average rate. However, share of the pie can trump the size of the pie, and I believe that Bell will have a top-five share of the pie among RBs in 2019. There is plenty of offseason to go, but the current running back room features a pair of second- and third-year sixth-round picks in McGuire and Cannon. The receiving group looks improved from last year, but lacks both depth and a star that could demand volume. There aren’t a lot of obstacles to Bell getting his touches, and if Gase decides to truly build the offense around Bell and embrace his versatility as a pass-catcher, then his health will be the only limit on his fantasy ceiling.

  1. Given a 77 percent catch rate, that would be 55.5 receptions  (back)
  2. Barkley had 80 percent in New York, Elliott had 88 percent in Dallas, and McCaffrey had 94 percent in Carolina  (back)
  3. 2010, Golden Tate’s rookie year  (back)

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