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Le'Veon Bell Is Not a Top-5 RB with the Jets

Dave Caban explains why Le’Veon Bell will not be a top-five fantasy running back in his first season with the New York Jets.
After holding out for the entirety of the 2018 season, Le’Veon Bell found a home in New York on Wednesday. The Jets signed the former Steeler to a four-year $52.5 million contract, with $35 million guaranteed.
While fantasy gamers hoped that Bell would wind up in a more exciting offense, he may have enough talent to remain a prolific fantasy contributor. Of course, Bell hasn’t taken an NFL snap since January of 2017, will be playing alongside a second-year quarterback, and will need Adam Gase to steady the Jet’s offense. Given this uncertainty, it’s unsurprising that the fantasy community is split on Bell’s 2019 prospects.
In this post, I’ll argue that Bell should not be viewed as a top-five running back heading into the 2019 season. In a complementary piece, Devin McIntyre will outline why I’m wrong. To add context to our discussion, the RB5 has averaged 283 PPR points on 267 rushes and 72 targets over the last five seasons. We’ll use these numbers to guide our evaluations.

Prior Production

In Bell’s five-year career, he’s played in 62 NFL games. In these contests, he averaged 4.3 yards per attempt, 20 carries, six and a half targets, and 0.67 touchdowns.
Bell’s tremendous production as a receiver secured his spot as one of the league’s elite running backs and made him a fantasy stud.

SEASON GP ATT YDS TD TGTS REC YDS TD PPR RB Rank
2013 13 244 860 8 66 45 399 0 217 14
2014 16 290 1,361 8 105 83 854 3 371 1
2015 6 113 556 3 26 24 136 0 111 47
2016 12 261 1,268 7 94 75 616 2 317 3
2017 15 321 1,291 9 107 85 655 2 342 2
Career 62 1229 5336 35 398 312 2660 7 272 13

Bell’s talent can’t be argued. He displays great vision, patience, agility, and is strong as a rusher and a pass-catcher.1 However, it’s hard to deny that he hasn’t benefited from playing in Pittsburgh. In addition to sharing the field with a Hall of Fame quarterback and wide receiver, the Steelers offensive line has ranked in the top-eight of adjusted line yards, per Football Outsiders, every season since 2014 with an average ranking of ninth over Bell’s career.
The success of the team’s offensive line has allowed every back playing behind it to flourish. In fact, one could argue that Stevan RidleyDeAngelo Williams, and James Conner collectively outproduced Bell when thrust into starting roles. Over 18 games, the trio averaged 4.3 yards per attempt, 1.05 touchdowns, and 21.4 PPR points per game (PPG). To be fair, Bell produced 21.9 PPG in his 62 contests, thanks to extra receiving production. Still, the group equaled Bell in yards per attempt and was more efficient in finding the end zone, scoring 0.38 more touchdowns per game on one less carry.
If we compare Bell’s 2017 against Conner’s 2018, it paints a similar picture. It would be fair to conclude that Bell has outperformed his counterparts as a receiver, but it doesn’t appear that he’s done so as a rusher.

Player Games Att Yards Yds/Att TD Targets Rec Yds TD PPG
Le’Veon Bell 2017 15 321 1291 4.0 9 106 85 655 2 23
James Conner 2018 13 215 973 4.5 12 71 55 497 1 22

Again, Bell’s talent and past production can’t be denied. However, it seems likely that his talent has been overstated based upon the situation that he was drafted into.
When playing without one of the league’s best offensive lines the traits he’s lauded for, such as vision and patience, could be compromised. Sam Darnold showed some promise in his rookie season, but to assume that he can utilize Bell’s skill set as a receiver in the way that Ben Roethlisberger did would be delusional.  

Expected Workload and Opportunity as a Jet

As 2019 will be Gase’s first season in New York, it’s hard to project how the offense will function. But one thing is clear, there’s a great deal of work to be done. In 2018, the team ranked 23rd in scoring with 333 points and 29th in yards per play with 4.9. Defensively, only three teams allowed more points per game. The Jets won just four games last season, five in 2017, and four in 2016. This can’t be overlooked. If Bell is to be a top-five RB, he’ll need not only volume but scoring opportunities as well.
Teams with losing records are unable to record high rushing volumes, and score fewer points than those that are successful. Even if Gase manages to improve New York’s record to 7-9, the team will likely score somewhere around 41 touchdowns and record 415 rushing attempts. In this scenario, he’d be able to record the requisite 270 carries if he controlled 65 percent of team rushing attempts. That seems possible.
However, top-five RBs have averaged 13 touchdowns per season over the last five years. For Bell to do so, he’d need to be responsible for 32 percent of Jets’ touchdowns. As a point of reference, Saquon Barkley controlled 42 percent of Giants’ touchdowns in 2018, Alvin Kamara 31 percent of Saints’, Christian McCaffrey 29 percent of Panthers’, and Ezekiel Elliott 26 percent of Cowboys’. Again, this seems achievable but is unlikely. Even in the well-oiled Pittsburgh offense Bell never managed more than 11 scores in a season.
The Jets plan to improve their offensive line, but like the rest of the team, there is a lot of ground to cover. In 2017, the unit was ranked 29th in adjusted line yards and was the worst team in the league in 2018. This will be a major change for Bell whose accustomed to running behind a powerhouse line. Let’s not forget, Bell hasn’t taken an NFL snap in over a year. Any dust that needs to be brushed off will only be exacerbated by the team’s weak offensive line. These concerns are significant enough that there’s no need to bring concerns over massive weight gain into the equation.
Ultimately, Bell will be arriving in a less than optimal situation. While he’ll control significant portions of New York’s rushing and passing games, the overall volume may not be enough for him to produce a top-five season. Remember, the numbers outlined above assume a jump of three wins, which is likely the best-case scenario. Even if he is “fresh” and shows up to camp in top physical condition, he’ll need to learn the playbook, get himself refocused on football, and assimilate himself into an offense that has been downright bad for years running.2 So it’s possible that he gets the volume a top-five RB needs, but it’s also possible, dare I say likely, that the efficiency will not be there to transfer the volume into top-five production.

Conclusion

I can’t say that Bell finishing the 2019 season as a top-five RB is entirely outside of the realm of possibility. What I can say, however, is that the odds of him doing so are slim. Bell is talented for sure, but when compared to backs that played in the same situation he does not seem transcendent. The transition from playing behind one of the leagues’ strongest offensive lines in one of the leagues’ best offenses to what will likely be a subpar line in a below-average offense will be a major adjustment.
In addition to an expected decrease in efficiency resulting from this, it’s reasonable to assume that it will take a couple of games for Bell to scrape off any rust and be the player that he was prior to missing 2018. Perhaps he can put things together as the season progresses and the improvements Gase makes come to fruition, but this delay in fantasy point accumulation could surely be enough to preclude him from joining the elite tier of top-five backs.
At the very least, there are so many questions, concerns, and red flags that I can confidently say I’ll be drafting Gurley, Barkley, Kamara, McCaffrey, Elliott, Conner, and Melvin Gordon before Bell. The fact pattern is a compelling one and it points to Bell’s 2019 being more 2018 David Johnson than 2018 Elliott.3

  1. Bell’s agility score of 10.99 at the 2013 Combine was fantastic for a 230 pound RB.  (back)
  2. Don’t forget, Bell has been busy focusing on his entertainment career and crafting an awful mixtape while away from football.  (back)
  3. Elliott missed only six games in 2017, whereas Johnson essentially missed the entire season, but you get the point.  (back)
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