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Player Spotlight: LeVeon Bell

A detailed look at Le'Veon Bell's fantasy prospects for 2013

The Pittsburgh Steelers love to run the ball. The proof is out there, just look at the numbers. For the past three seasons, Pittsburgh has given their tailbacks an average of 28 touches a game, and they have produced over 2,000 total yards for the past three years. So what prompted the Steelers to draft Le'Veon Bell in Round 2 in April? The distribution of those touches has been way out of whack for the past two years, and the team offense has suffered as a result. Back in 2010, Rashard Mendenhall was the feature tailback in Pittburgh, and his 1,274 yards on the ground on 324 carries represented over 75% of the running back touches for the Steelers three years ago. That was the last time the Steelers made the playoffs, a clear goal for the team in 2013.

Pittsburgh does not want the next Mendenhall – they want far better than that. The Steelers had Mendenhall as their top tailback in 2010, but his yards per carry (under 4.0, the league average) directly hinted at the two biggest problems – tailback and offensive line talent. Since then, Mendenhall has gotten to be a bigger and bigger injury risk, which prompted Pittsburgh to look in another direction when Mendenhall's contract expired. The Steelers gave a look at some free agents, including Ahmad Bradshaw, but decided to take their chances in the NFL Draft. They hope that Le'Veon Bell, a big back out of Michigan State that was sitting there for them to draft in Round 2, becomes their next feature runner.

Bell has the numbers in college to become a feature runner, but will his talents translate enough to the NFL, especially as a rookie? Bell racked up solid stats in the Big 10, rushing for 3,346 yards and 33 touchdowns in three seasons at Michigan State. Even better, Bell averaged over five yards per carry – a big stat that the Steelers certainly were looking at when they drafted Bell. Everyone is now saying all the right things when it comes to Bell's role this season. Comments from the Pittsburgh coaching staff say that he can play as a feature back, block well in the passing game and play on all three downs. Bell's 67 receptions (434 yards and a touchdown) over his past two collegiate seasons tend to confirm that statement. Concerns for rookie tailbacks often start with their ability to pass protect, and Pittsburgh surely does not want a blind side hit to take out Ben Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh has just two tailbacks on the roster (Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman) that had over 100 carries last year, and both have been dismissed as complimentary backs at best. The door is wide open for Bell to start and finish his rookie year as the feature tailback for Pittsburgh, and based on Mendenhall's numbers in 2010 and the overall rushing stats for the Steelers the past three years, a true feature tailback can have 1,200-1,400 total yards. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has compared Bell favorably to Eddie George, describing Bell as a workhorse back that can be leaned on for offensive production. All this points to me as Bell having a solid rookie year and contributing as a potential Top 20 running back in his first NFL season.

POSITIVES

  • The Steelers give their tailbacks plenty of chances to produce, year after year, and Bell clearly looks like their top tailback entering 2013 – which should lead to solid production for the rookie
  • Pittsburgh had the option to go in several other directions this off-season for their tailback situation, but chose to draft Bell instead of re-sign Rashard Mendenhall or add free agent Ahmad Bradshaw. That plus the Round 2 draft pick of Bell reflects a big vote of confidence in the rookie from the organization
  • Bell has been labeled a feature tailback and received favorable comparisons to Eddie George, being described as a similar “workhorse” running back
  • Mike Wallace is gone, so the Steelers may have to run the ball even more than last season
  • There is little on the depth chart to challenge Bell for touches. Both Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have done little with their multiple opportunities to seize the top running back job.

NEGATIVES

  • Not many draftniks were high on Le'Veon Bell as a potential featured tailback at the NFL level. Just because the Pittsburgh organization is calling him one does not mean he will produce as such
  • Pittsburgh may throw the ball a lot more this year, limiting the rushing game, with Ben Roethlisberger finally looking healthy again
  • The Pittsburgh offensive line has been questioned often, and they are putting in a new power-zone blocking scheme. If that does not come off well, the entire rushing attack for the Steelers will suffer
  • Dwyer and Redman are veteran running backs, and the NFL season is a long one. Veterans often push rookies for workloads, and both have filled in for the Steelers in the past.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Pittsburgh is looking to spark its lackluster ground game this year, and they had several options to improve their tailback situation. Rather than re-signing Rashard Mendenhall or adding free agent Ahmad Bradshaw, the Steelers opted to take their chances in the NFL Draft, where they landed Le'Veon Bell. Bell is now considered as their top back and a likely featured runner, evidenced not just by the comments from the coaching staff but also because they have dropped all interest in Bradshaw or any other back out on the free agent market. The Steelers will still throw the ball plenty, but with Bell as their top runner (and possibly receiver as well) out of the backfield, Pittsburgh could return to a balanced offense. If the revamped offensive line and power-zone blocking scheme opens up lanes for Bell, he should step up and deliver solid fantasy RB2 numbers as a rookie. I expect Bell to get about 15-20 chances to touch the ball per game as a rookie, as the coaching staff will still want to work both Redman and Dwyer in to keep Bell fresh over a long season. As long as Bell can stay healthy, I have him getting about 60% of the probable running back production, which should give him 1,000 yards rushing and around 200 more as a receiver. Sprinkle in about a touchdown every other game and Bell has RB20 or so value with some upside to boot.


OTHER THOUGHTS


Le'VEON BELL PROJECTIONS

 

 

RSH

RSHYD

RSHTD

REC

RECYD

RECTD

Jeff Pasquino

250

1000

8

35

200

1

David Dodds

210

872

6

18

126

1

Bob Henry

240

1010

6

28

200

1

Jason Wood

250

1100

8

25

160

1

Maurile Tremblay

148

614

4

23

173

1

Message board consensus

236

968

8

32

241

1


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