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Re-valuing the Steelers offense After Bell's Suspension

Sigmund Bloom runs down the fantasy fallout of Le'Veon Bell's four-game suspension

Another year, another Le’Veon Bell suspension at the beginning of the season to contend with. This time, a four-game suspension for a missed drug test, reported by Dan Graziano of ESPN and originally rumored by Pittsburgh radio personality Mark Madden. While this might seem like a crushing blow to Bell’s fantasy stock on first glance, don’t overreact and pass on a proven league winner in a round where they are rarely, if ever available. While four games might seem to be a small number when adjusting Williams’ outlook, don’t underreact and undervalue what four strong-to-elite RB1 games are worth in fantasy leagues. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Re-valuing Le’Veon Bell

Bell will lose 4/12 of his starts in a typical fantasy league, one-third of his value. Still, you shouldn’t lower his value by that amount. Our Chase Stuart wrote a definitive piece in 2013 on the subject “How to Value a Player Who Will Miss The Start of a Season”. Stuart wrote on Rob Gronkowski:

the proper way to value a player isn't to look at the number of fantasy points he scores. Instead, the concept of VBD tells us that a player's fantasy value is a function of how many fantasy points he scores relative to the other players at his position. I like to use a VBD baseline equal to that of a replacement player at the position, and "average backup" is a good proxy for that. In a 12-team league that starts one tight end with no flex option, that would be TE18. In standard leagues, TE18 on a points per game basis is Brandon Myers. Footballguys projects Myers to average 5.4 FP/G in standard leagues and and 8.9 FP/G in PPR leagues. In 1.5 PPR leagues, Martellus Bennett comes in at TE18 in our projections, with an average of 10.6 FP/G.

So how does that help us value Gronkowski? When healthy, we now know that Gronkowski will provide 5.2 more fantasy points per game than a replacement tight end in standard leagues (10.6-5.4), 6.7 more FP/G in PPR leagues (15.6-8.9), and 7.5 additional FP/G in 1.5PPR leagues (18.1-10.5). This equates to a VBD value of 83 points, 107 points, and 120 points if Gronkowski played in all sixteen games.

...the key is to value him by the number of points of VBD he will be projected to provide, and not his number of projected fantasy points.

However you project Bell, he has to be a VBD monster. In 2014, he was the clear #1 fantasy running back and produced almost nine points per game more than the RB12 in PPR leagues. In 2015, Bell was only the #4 back on a points per game basis, but four of his six games were without Ben Roethlisberger. He probably would have been #1 again if Roethlisberger had been healthy for the time Bell was on the field.

This should be intuitive. Bell was so far ahead of the running back pack (without injury recovery worries, he would be the clear #1 back in drafts) that even losing one-third of that advantage would only pull him back to the Miller/Freeman/Charles tier at worst, around RB5-7 or a second round pick.

There are some risks here. One, that Bell gets in more trouble and is suspended for the year, and two, that the team uses DeAngelo Williams more once Bell returns and cuts Bell's huge per game workload of 2014 and 2015, which would certainly reduce that VBD edge. Perhaps putting him at the bottom of the Miller/Freeman/Charles tier is called for, but even in a more pessimistic projection, Bell still fits in the mid-late second round. Let us remember that one positive out of this news is that the Steelers won't have to put Bell on the field before he is ready. His knee should be fully recovered and he should fully trust it by Week 5, whereas we might have been a little more tentative about penciling in his normal numbers in his first week back if we didn't see him at all in the preseason and then he turned around two weeks later and started Week 1.

The other factor we have to consider here is something staffer Adam Harstad laid out in an article and a string of tweets: Points in playoff weeks are worth more than points in regular season weeks. Assuming Bell will be around for the playoffs, he’ll be providing that elite first-round value at a discount - and if you’re in the playoffs, you probably got first-round value for the player you did use a first on. Adam warns us to be more wary of players who will miss the beginning of the season as the percentage of teams that go to the playoffs in our leagues gets smaller. If 50% of the league goes to the playoffs, the disadvantage of not having Bell for the first four weeks is easier to swallow (not that the advantage he gives you the other eight regular season weeks might not make up for it completely). Let’s also remember that you can draft knowing your disadvantage and give more priority to players like Williams, those who have a good early season schedule, or those may begin the season as the starter but not finish as one, like Latavius Murray.

Bottom Line: Bell fits well in the late second to pair with a stud WR in the first as the beginning of a dominant one-two punch for the playoffs. If Lamar Miller, Jamaal Charles, Devonta Freeman, or Mark Ingram are still there, I understand passing on Bell to play it safer. If we project Bell to play 12 games in his old 80-90% of the snaps role, he will easily outperform a late second draft slot assuming we measure success by VBD.

Re-valuing DeAngelo Williams

Williams was absurdly going in the 10th/11th round range despite his being a proven league winner and Bell’s murky status for the start of camp. Just as some knocking down Bell may overreact to missing the first four games, some moving Williams up may underreact to his starting “only” four games. Williams was far and away the #1 fantasy running back during weeks he started last year, and we will surely project him in the top 6-8 backs in the first four weeks. Just those four weeks will likely amount to more VBD than most of the backs in the 5th-7th range will generate all season. Williams can get your team off to a hot start by basically being a second first-round pick for the first four weeks, and one that only costs a mid-round pick. Then you still get injury upside if Bell gets hurt again, and the possibility that the Steelers install something more like a timeshare, with Williams getting 20-40% of the snaps/touches instead of the paltry few he got when Bell was healthy last year. I’ll take that head start and count on my ability to hit on a few late picks or early waiver wire adds to bridge the gap that will open when Williams goes back to being a backup in Week 5.

Bottom Line: Unless you are really high on a back like Matt Jones, Ryan Mathews, Jeremy Langford, or Jeremy Hill, the fifth round looks like the spot to take Williams. Once you get to the sixth or seventh, he starts to look like a value, unless you feel certain Bell will play the final 12 games, and in that case, you should be targeting Bell in the second. Taking both Bell and Williams is not crazy because you are likely to get a strong RB1, and very likely THE RB1, as Bell/Williams combined to be in 2015. Even if the Steelers go to an RBBC, you can still get low RB1 value out of Bell and low RB2 value out of Williams weekly because of the potency of the offense.

Re-valuing Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, etc.

This one will be short. You shouldn’t really adjust the values of any other Steelers. The offense functioned better with Williams than it did with Bell, at least in part because most of Bell’s games featured Michael Vick or Landry Jones at quarterback. All hands on deck would have been a good argument to take Roethlisberger at ADP, but with Martavis Bryant suspended, the Steelers offense might not hit its 2015 peak, even if Bell had a chance to play all 16 games. It’s already difficult to make a compelling case for Roethlisberger at ADP, so unless the Bell news drops him a round or three, my stance will remain unchanged. Brown is already my WR1, any overflow of targets from the loss of Bell would only make him more entrenched in that spot. As good as Bell is, we didn’t see any signs last year that the offense would struggle to be as dangerous in his absence, although it will obviously be even better in his presence.

Bottom Line: Don’t make significant adjustments to the ranking of any other Steelers.