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On Le'Veon Bell, Risk, and Substances of Abuse

Le'Veon Bell's recent suspension and appeal give us plenty of information about what kind of risks he presents going forward. But are we taking away the appropriate lessons?

Hi, I'm Adam Harstad, and I hate players in the substances of abuse program. Not morally or personally, of course— in truth, I'm one of those hippie types who loves pretty much everyone and wants a world with nothing but joy and success. But I'm also someone whose job is analyzing fantasy value, and from a fantasy value standpoint, I think they're bad bets.

This is not a new or novel position for me. In 2013, after returning from a 4-game suspension, Justin Blackmon had 5/136/1 and 14/190/0 in his first two games. He was a 23-year-old top-5 NFL draft pick, and he was impossible to cover. Naturally, his value shot through the roof in dynasty leagues. Immediately after those two games, I wrote this:

Justin Blackmon is off to a spectacular start to the season, but like with Jimmy Graham, this level of production is not sustainable in the long term. Still, Blackmon has been showing off every bit of the talent that led to Jacksonville drafting him with a top-5 selection. Top-5 receivers have historically been players with very high potential rewards- A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson were all selected with top-5 picks. Julio Jones and Torry Holt were taken 6th overall. Still, while the reward is huge, the risk is as well. The other WRs selected in the top 5 since 2000 are Peter Warrick, Charles Rogers, and Braylon Edwards. Justin Blackmon looks well on his way towards joining that former group, but it's important to remember why Blackmon was serving his four-game suspension in the first place. By some reports, Justin Blackmon is already in stage 3 of the substance abuse program, which means any additional violations will incur a mandatory 1-year suspension. That's a major risk that is flying under the radar, and it has to be factored into his price. In leagues where I own Blackmon, I will be quietly making inquiries to see if anyone is willing to purchase him at a price that reflects all of his upside but none of his downside. I tend to embrace risk when building a fantasy team, but If I could get top-10 receiver prices for Blackmon today, I'd be happy with that.

Josh Gordon was having a good year to that point, but he hadn't yet entered orbit (He was 15th in points per game after week 7 in PPR leagues). He had also gotten his season-opening suspension reduced on appeal, suggesting there were extenuating circumstances and, therefore, less involved risk. As a result, my advice on him was to hold:

Also for what it's worth, Josh Gordan, in my mind, is 80% of Justin Blackmon. 80% of the production so far, 80% of the talent, but he only carries 80% of the risk, and he's only due for 80% of the regression. If I could get top-10 WR prices for Gordon, I'd gladly do that, too. I'm less optimistic with my chances, there, so I'd be more inclined to hold him and take on the risk. As I said, I tend to be pro-risk when building a roster, it's only when you can begin to trade an asset that is productive but risky for one that is equally productive but much less risky that trades start to make sense.

But after the season, when he finished as the #2 fantasy receiver with over 1700 yards from scrimmage in just 14 games, Gordon did start commanding top-10 prices. In fact, in dynasty startups he was usually one of the first two players drafted, and was nearly-universally considered part of the “top tier” of dynasty receivers— a tier of six players that also included Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant.

At that point, my Gordon skepticism kicked into high gear. I argued that people were once again failing to properly account for his risk, and should unequivocally not be part of the “top tier”. (I had Percy Harvin there, instead; nobody is perfect.)

I've been known to say that past suspensions predict future suspensions far better than past injuries predict future injuries. The reason for this is simple: some injuries indicate some sort of underlying issue, (think: Arian Foster's soft-tissue injuries), but some injuries are essentially just random results of a violent game (think: Keenan Allen's lacerated kidney). On the other hand, no one gets suspended randomly, so all are indicative of some underlying issue. You don't get busted for using marijuana unless you actually use marijuana.

Given this track record, this belief that the market continually underreacted to suspension risk, one would assume that I'm writing this to offer the same dire warnings for Le'Veon Bell. “Friends, subscribers, fantasy addicts, lend me your ears. I come to bury Le'Veon, not to praise him.”

Except I'm not. I'm just trying to establish my bona-fides before I say that this time is different.