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Is Le'Veon Bell Worth the No. 1 Pick in Fantasy Drafts?

Le'Veon Bell was suspened for three games by the NFL. Should you take him at the top of your fantasy draft? Alessandro Miglio doesn't think so.

Once he was pulled over that fateful day last August, Le’Veon Bell’s suspension was inevitable. So were the multitude of opinions and hot takes about his fantasy draft stock once the verdict was handed down.

Despite his expected punishment, Bell has far and away been the top draft pick on average this offseason in redraft formats. That may change now that we have a definitive suspension—it was unclear whether he would get two or four games, so he naturally got three—but there are still plenty who will ignore it.

There are naturally two clashing camps in the wake of the news—those who would take him early regardless, and those who will shy away from him in the first round. There are merits to both sides, but my analysis falls squarely in the latter camp.

Simply put, drafting Bell at the top of the first round is the one of the riskiest moves you can make for the 2015 season—it puts you behind the eight ball the instant you click the "draft player" button for a variety of reasons. It’s not a simple case of delayed gratification, either—it’s like saying you can either have a bag of M&Ms today or a bigger bag of M&Ms in three weeks that might be a bag of colored rocks. 

If fantasy football is a complex equation, Bell’s three-week suspension is a rare constant in a sea of variables. For the first three weeks of the season, you know exactly what you are getting from him—zero points. That wouldn’t normally be a huge issue when factoring value based drafting (VBD)—Bell is going to be a great fantasy option among his peers even after missing those three games. The problem is his risk isn’t being baked into his ADP.

The value isn’t there, and it may never be this offseason.

As stated, there are certainly merits to taking Bell regardless of his suspension. He very well could wind up in the top five in fantasy scoring despite his three-week absence, and odds are his per-game totals will be tops at his position. Assuming good health, he will be a monster in PPR formats, and he should be valuable in the playoffs. But your odds to make the fantasy postseason may be severely impacted by drafting him. 

Taking Bell early hand-waves facts—namely that he will be scoring 0.0 PPG on your bench for the first three weeks—and embraces assumptions, a dangerous tactic in the fantasy football realm. 

Here are some of the inherent assumptions in taking Bell with a top pick (note: these aren't all exclusive to Bell, merely highlighted):

  • At least one quality running back will make it back to you in the second round.
  • Bell’s replacement in the lineup will score enough points to mitigate the loss.
  • Bell will meet expectations upon return, among the top per-game scorers in the league.
  • You will make the fantasy playoffs, and Bell will be a monster.
  • His draft alternative won't meet expectations.
  • You will get Bell's handcuff, DeAngelo Williams.

Perhaps Williams wouldn't be a priority for you, but that has certainly been put forth as a mitigating factor in drafting Bell. 

Assuming Bell will be at the top of the league in fantasy scoring is also a bit fanciful. His situation and 2014 performance would certainly point to another big year, but you simply never know what will happen. For example, here is a look at the top five qualifying fantasy scorers per game at running back over the past four seasons:

2014 Player FP PPG   2013 Player FP PPG
1  DeMarco Murray 304.1 19.0 1  Jamaal Charles 312.1 20.8
2  Arian Foster 235.3 18.1 2  LeSean McCoy 280.7 17.5
3  Le'Veon Bell 287.5 18.0 3  Matt Forte 265.3 16.6
4  Marshawn Lynch 269.3 16.8 4  Marshawn Lynch 241.3 15.1
5  Matt Forte 244.6 15.3 5  Adrian Peterson 209.7 15.0
 Top five per-game fantasy scorers at running back over the past four seasons
2012 Player FP PPG   2011 Player FP PPG
1  Adrian Peterson 309.4 19.3 1  Arian Foster 256.1 19.7
2  Arian Foster 264.8 16.6 2  LeSean McCoy 282.4 18.8
3  Doug Martin 264.6 16.5 3  Ray Rice 296.8 18.6
4  Marshawn Lynch 250.6 15.7 4  Fred Jackson 173.6 17.4
5  Alfred Morris 246.3 15.4 5  M. Jones-Drew 264.0 16.5

There are a couple of repeat offenders, but the volatility at the top is clear—you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. Bell averaged a gaudy 18 standard points per game last season—23.2 in PPR formats, which led the league by a god margin—but that number could easily fall a couple of points even if Bell retains his health and workload when he returns. He was mostly injury-free in 2014 before hyperextending his knee at the end of the year, but he missed the first three games of his career with a foot injury.

The idea that he is far and away the best option at running back regardless of suspension is problematic—even if he does lead the league, it’s clear there will be viable alternatives who can produce similar numbers without compromising your roster or the first three weeks of the season. Identifying and drafting them would be the key, though a modicum of luck is required in any fantasy success.

Of course, there are no guarantees anywhere in fantasy football—you could select steady Marshawn Lynch or high-ceiling Jamaal Charles and see one of them lost to injury in Week 2. But, again, that is a variable whereas Bell’s suspension is a known quantity. When you are making any draft picks, you are making assumptions about that player, too. But Bell's absence puts a magnifying glass on the risks associated with drafting him.

Altered roster construction is also likely when taking Bell early—fantasy owners will have to compensate for Bell’s absence one way or another. Whether that means taking running backs in the second and third rounds or reaching for mid-level talent in subsequent rounds, other positions will be impacted. Owners could simply forego running back altogether early and opt to strengthen other positions while waiting for his return, but finding replacement-level players late in the draft is no exact science. Without accounting for Bell's absence in the draft, fantasy owners risk having a terribly low output at a starting position, putting them behind the eight ball to win games at the start of the season.

Can you stomach missing out on this year’s Odell Beckham because you needed to grab DeAngelo Williams? How many running backs will get drafted before you get a chance to make your second pick? What if the suspension puts Bell in Mike Tomlin’s proverbial doghouse? Will Williams eat into Bell’s touches if they’re both healthy? What if Bell misses another game or two because of a minor injury?

Once again, many of those variables can apply to just about any running back—there is simply no way to know if any of the top backs will pan out. Knowing you are getting a maximum of 12 weeks—most leagues are 16 weeks long, and there is the bye week to account for—from Bell to begin with, however, magnifies them. You not only risk compromising the first three weeks of the season with a weak output, but you risk compromising the entire season by having to adjust your drafts strategy.

It’s not all gloom and doom, here. There are certainly paths to success with Bell, they just have a greater degree of difficulty or rely more on good fortune. Avoiding Bell is the pragmatic thing to do, but gambling on him could pay off with savvy roster management and a dose of good luck early in the season. And he could certainly fall into the middle of the first round or later depending on proclamations and valuations from various fantasy gaming sites. 

This boils down to evaluating risk. Bell's metrics and situation point to big numbers—even if they fall off a bit—if he can stay healthy. It's inarguable, however, that drafting him means taking on more risk, based on everything laid out above. 

Go big or go home, right? In drafting Bell early, you could be going big and home all at once.