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Pick-a-Player: Bell, Elliott, or Johnson - Footballguys

Footballguys staff and Facebook answer a dilemma at the 1.02 spot

The premise of a Pick-a-Player question is as follows:

  • You need a player at that position and all three are available.
  • The draft is at a stage where these players are usually drafted, and none of their bye weeks are duplicated on your current roster.

We ask two groups of people: the Footballguys staff, and the great people following the Footballguys Facebook page. If you'd like to answer a future Pick-a-Player question, there are still some open ones on our page. Plus, there is a lot of other content there as well. Like and Follow us, and you can join the great discussions taking place every day.

In this case, it is a PPR league, and you are up at Pick 1.02. Would you take Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, or David Johnson? Or would you pass on all three?

The Results

And the winner is Bell - pretty much. See the percentages below.

Group
Percentage Picking...
Bell
Elliott
Johnson
None of the Three
Footballguys Staff
42.9%
42.9%
14.3%
0.0%
Footballguys Facebook
61.7%
21.3%
12.8%
4.3%

The Reasons (from the Staff)

Jason Wood: I'm not going to belittle any of these running backs, they're the consensus top choices in every draft (along with Todd Gurley) and it's fully justified. If I were drafting 1.04, I wouldn't hesitate to draft whoever remained of this group. But if we're faced with the choice, for me it's Le'Veon Bell. I have Bell and Gurley with nearly identical fantasy point production in PPR formats. Bell is the most proven of the trio, and the Steelers should be the most productive offense.

Daniel Simpkins: If given the choice between the three, I'll also take Le'Veon Bell. I know there is a slight risk he holds out and misses some games, but the reports from his camp and even his Twitter comments suggest he'll just miss training camp and show up for the regular season. While the Steelers may "punish" Bell in the first game back like they did last year, they'll spend the rest of the year riding him into the ground with touches and carries. If this is to be their last year together, they'll do everything they can to use him up. That bodes well for his fantasy production.

Chad Parsons: I would take Ezekiel Elliott without much hesitation. Le'Veon Bell reporting late (again) is tempting injury, which is managed to avoid through a monster workload in 2017. Elliott is the youngest of the options and in-line to dominate a Dallas offense seeking an identity with questions in the passing game. I look for Elliott to have the highest floor and ceiling (with more receiving work) in 2018.

Will Grant: At 1.02, I want as little risk as possible. This pick needs to be as close to 'set it and forget it' that it can be. Today, with the questions around Bell, Elliot is that guy. The Dallas offense has some questions about what their passing game will look like, but the running game is all Elliot, all the time. The suspension distraction behind him, Elliot is a guy I'd happily take at 1.02.

Matt Waldman: All three backs deserve props. Johnson is the best athlete of the three but we inflate the value of athletic ability beyond what it deserves. He'll succeed this year in Arizona but the line has question marks and there could be a lack of continuity at the quarterback position that's unpredictable enough to put him third in this conversation.

Bell isn't far behind Johnson as an athlete and if we're talking about functional mobility that's vital to the running back position, he's the best. The way he can flip his hips on a dime to avoid oncoming defenders shooting a crease is one of the subtle displays of physical genius you'll see in this era of running back play. His offensive line is strong and he has surrounding skill talent that will make opponents pay for cheating in the box to often to stop Bell. The contract stuff is just problematic enough for this conversation to place him second on my list, but not by much. If we were talking about top-12 running backs, this issue wouldn't even register for me. However, we're examining this under a microscope when looking at the three after Todd Gurley.

As a result, Ezekiel Elliott is my choice. He's the wisest decision-maker of the three. Whereas David Johnson has recently learned how to anticipate creases opening and running towards the blocks beforehand, Elliott has been doing this since his years at Ohio State. He's well-versed with every blocking scheme, and he's a tough runner with great burst. Like the other two, he doesn't come off the field on third down, and he can beat you with speed, moves, and power. Elliott attacks runners like the old-school backs who had long productive careers. The line is still good, and while the passing game isn't on Pittsburgh's level, it should be just good enough that game scripts won't kill Elliott's value.

Justin Howe: I also lean toward Elliott. He's significantly younger than Bell, and he carries none of the conditioning concerns Chad pointed out. Elliott will dominate this offense on a fundamental level, with 350 touches a distinct possibility. Bell holds a similar usage ceiling, with much better PPR chops, but also a lower floor. He's never been an eye-popping touchdown producer, either, considering all of the Steelers' weapons. You can't bungle this pick, but Elliott is my choice by a whisker.

Johnson is the wild card here. He'll carry his offense like Elliott, and he's a dynamite receiver like Bell. And his 2017 injury wasn't anything too concerning; he's not recovering from ACL surgery or an Achilles rupture. I don't think he's quite on the level of those guys, though. Johnson will dominate an offense in major transition, one that will be quarterbacked by a rookie for much of the year and likely struggle to produce touchdown opportunities. And he wasn't very efficient as a high-volume runner in 2016, averaging just 4.2 yards per carry, with just 11 of his 293 attempts topping 15 yards (fewer than Tyrod Taylor and Terrance West). He's lightning in a bottle, but as a pure runner, nothing to crane one's neck at. It's also stunning, though not damning, to note that he'll turn 27 during the season.

Dan Hindery: You really can't go wrong with any of these backs and there is very little separation between the three. I lean Ezekiel Elliott because he looks like the safest choice of the trio.

The Le'Veon Bell contract situation isn't something to be afraid of based upon his positive statements and the fact that he would lose nearly $900,000 per game if he stayed away. However, it is enough of an issue that you can use it as a tie-breaker in a situation like this. The conditioning concerns are legitimate. Bell didn't look like himself until Week 3 or Week 4 last season. Plus, who knows if the contract impasse becomes an issue in terms of playing through nagging issues, with Bell looking to preserve his body and limit carries heading into free agency next offseason.

The minor concern with David Johnson is that he is stepping into a new offense with a new quarterback. While his role shouldn't change much and chemistry shouldn't be an issue, the slight unknown is enough of a negative to drop him below Elliott since we're splitting hairs.

Elliott is the youngest of the trio and unlike Johnson and Bell, has never suffered a major injury. He should be relatively fresh after playing just 10 games last season and will run behind an elite offensive line that may be even better after the second-round addition of Connor Williams. Elliott also should continue to see his role as a pass catcher continue to increase. He saw nearly as many targets (38) in 10 games last season as he did in his full rookie season (39). He was on pace for 60 targets last season and if he sees even a slight increase in targets, he can outscore Bell and Johnson even in the PPR format because he has been a more productive runner.

Ryan Hester: Let's start with who does not belong in the same tier as the other two. Dallas' offense might be among the least explosive in the NFL this season. Their offensive line isn't as strong as it was for the last two seasons, and they have virtually no playmakers. They have also said that Tavon Austin will be used as a receiving back. If that were to happen, Elliott's ceiling would be capped.

In the last five seasons, among players who have played eight or more games, only five of the Top 25 fantasy points-per-game seasons have been registered by players with fewer than 50 receptions. I don't see Elliott as a lock to get to 50 catches. That makes him a touchdown-dependent player on a team that will probably be in the bottom quartile of touchdowns scored.

As for Bell vs. Johnson, Bell's contract concerns aren't as much of a worry as his lack of explosiveness. Bell has only seven rushes of 20 or more yards in the last two seasons. That's a scant 1.2% of his rushing attempts. Johnson, on the other hand, had 10 such rushes across his 418 carries in 2015 and 2016 (2.4%).

Our top picks need to be utilized in high-leverage situations. Let's look at usage inside the 10- and 5-yard lines:

  • Johnson (2015 and 2016): 33 carries from the 5 or closer and 47 from the 10 or closer
  • Bell (2016 and 2017): 16 carries from the 5 or closer, 41 from the 10 or closer

Keep in mind, also, that Johnson's numbers come from 418 total carries (11.2% inside the 10), while Bell's come from 582 (7.0%).

A potential objection to the usage detailed above is that Arizona has a brand new quarterback, head coach, and offensive coordinator. All of that is true, but the obstacles limiting Bell's goal-to-go usage are all still in place in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger loves to throw in close; Antonio Brown is still an excellent option; the team has two tall tight ends in place as well.

Devin Knotts: In a non-PPR league, the answer is easily Elliott as he has 15-touchdown upside similar to what he had in 2016. Behind that offensive line, this offense is going to go through Elliott and give him as much volume as he can handle this year.

In a PPR, the answer is Bell for me. The consistency he provides and the floor that he provides with averaging 80 receptions over the last two seasons. The contract issue really does not concern me as he is going to lose about $900k per game that he sits out which is not realistic. This contract talk in July is Bell's last chance to get a long-term deal with the Steelers, so they are overplaying it when in reality he is not going to miss time in my opinion.

Phil Alexander: Ryan's answer is perfect. Dallas has underused Elliott in the passing game since day one and the addition of Tavon Austin makes me worry they have no intention of correcting their mistake this season.

Given 16 games, both Bell and Johnson will reach at least 80 receptions. Drafting Elliott ahead of them puts you in an instant 40+ point hole in PPR scoring before you even factor in receiving yards.

Choosing between Bell and Johnson is splitting hairs, but ultimately I'm also taking Johnson once Gurley is off the board (and maybe even before). The only reason he's not the slam dunk top-overall pick this season is the recency bias surrounding last year's fluky wrist injury.

Justin Bonnema: I disagree with Ryan that the Cowboys offensive line is worse than what they were a few years ago. They've added depth, which gives them flexibility and could end up meaning La'el Collins moves inside to guard--a change that would make them the best run-blocking group in the league. And even in they are worse than a few years ago, by how much? They're still one of the top-three line groupings in the NFL.

And any concerns of Tavon Austin cutting into Elliott's playing time or pass-catching outlook should be checked at the door. If we're worried about Austin, then we should also be worried that Jaylen Samuels will steal targets from Bell, or that Brandin Cooks' addition smothers Gurley's outlook. Note that Elliott was second in the league last year in opportunities per game with 28. He will be the heartbeat of the Cowboys offense again this year, which may actually be more explosive than the consensus opinion thinks. I'd risk a lot that says Elliott ends up finishing as the highest scoring running back in all formats.

Ryan Hester: Justin, you may not be worried about Austin, but you can’t make the Samuels-Bell comparison. Stepping past the fact that we’ve never seen Samuels play, you’re comparing Elliott’s passing game acumen and achievements to Bell’s - a comparison that shouldn’t be made.

Even completely discounting Austin, Elliott’s passing game role is far short of Bell’s and Johnson’s, which puts him third on this list for me.

Justin Bonnema: Ryan, it's hard to argue against Bell's usage as receiver, which makes him the safest pick of the bunch. But Elliott outscored Bell in 2016 despite having half the amount of receptions (Bell's suspension added to this, of course), and was on pace to outscore him last year (PPR points through Week 9, eight games each: Elliott: 172.3, Bell: 162.9). Elliott was used much more in the passing game in 2017 than his rookie season (38 targets in 10 games vs 40 in 16 games). He may not have the pass-catching upside that Johnson and Bell have, but Eliott's overall upside pushes him above everyone else.

Justin Howe: Seriously, if anyone is going to quibble with Elliott drawing 60-65 targets (last year's pace), then your standards might be too high. He's been more efficient than Bell, been given more touchdown opportunity, has lost less tread, and as Justin B. pointed out, outscored Bell in 2016.

Justin and Justin, these are good points you made, but if you're directing them at me, remember that I chose Johnson out of this trio!

Even so, I have the right to quibble with 60-65 targets when they're being compared to players who have a better-than-50/50 chance to see over 100 targets if they play all 16 games. The last five years have shown us that running backs average approximately 1.5 fantasy points per target in PPR formats. 35 targets x 1.5 points = 52.5 fantasy points if everyone plays every game.

Can Elliott make those up with efficiency, which could be tested? With Dallas' current group of skill players, Elliott is bound to see more loaded boxes than he has in the past. And my prior point about Bell's lack of big plays is why I'm favoring Johnson over Bell here. His warts are neither efficiency nor less involvement in the passing game.

And as for standard, heck yes, my standards are high! This is the 1.02 pick we're talking about. Literally everyone, except for one player, is available to be picked. No stone should be left unturned. When we're talking about the 1.02, every difference between legitimate candidates is nitpicky, but they're important.

Andy Hicks: We are trying to minimize risk with the second pick.

Dallas loses Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Where is the receiving threat for Dallas to help Ezekiel Elliott? Opposing defenses can just stack the box and dare Dak Prescott to beat them. Elliott is a great choice, but not the one I would choose.

David Johnson has a new coach, offensive scheme, and quarterback. He is also coming off a missing season. Johnson is a nice pick, but he really only has one season of work under his belt. Amazingly he is also older than Le'Veon Bell.

Bell has three years of elite production for a full season, Elliott and Johnson only have one. Bell has the same coach and quarterback and despite a new offensive coordinator, there won't be a change in his usage. Bell will almost certainly be a free agent after this season and will not be short of motivation to have his best season to date. The only weakness in his game is that his touchdowns are only just double digits every year. If he gets on the same volume as Elliott, Gurley and Johnson are expected to then he becomes the clear number one back in the game.

Justin Howe: One could argue, Andy, that having three years of workhorse experience is a negative versus just one.

Phil Alexander: Once again, Ryan beat me to the punch. Tavon Austin has zero impact on my Ezekiel Elliott projections. But Austin is relevant within the context of this discussion because every pass he catches is one that Elliott doesn't. Keeping pace with Johnson while spotting him three catches and ~25 yards per game makes hyper-efficiency a mandate for Elliott on a weekly basis. While Elliott is certainly capable, the lack of talent surrounding him in Dallas could lead to more stalled drives and he's got to deal with Dak Prescott poaching five or six rushing touchdowns every year.

The 2016 season feels like a long time ago, but Johnson would have finished as a top-30 PPR wide receiver that year without rushing for a single yard. The better argument is whether we should be drafting him over Gurley.

B.J. VanderWoude: Like Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson is also in a contract year. At 27 years old, this is likely his only chance at a mega-contract. I think he has the most to play for this season.

Bell has the rushing and receiving volume you want out of your No. 1 pick but lacks the touchdown upside of Johnson and Elliot. I see Elliot as the clear No. 3 choice here in PPR leagues because he cannot match Bell and Johnson’s receiving numbers. He may improve in that department, but totaling 75+ receptions is asking too much of him. He will likely lead the trio in rushing yards, but from a point perspective, each increased reception counts nearly double for Johnson and Bell (receptions + yards). Elliot would need to outrush Johnson and/or Bell by a minimum of 500 yards AND four rushing touchdowns just to even out the receiving disparity. Johnson checks all three boxes, rushing, receiving and touchdown upside.

The preference between Johnson and Bell would likely come down to the other players in my league. If I felt like there was little value to be found in the later rounds (a league of sharp managers) I would pick Johnson because his ceiling (411.8 points in 2016) is higher than any other player in the league. The Cardinals are entering a new era, with a first-year coach and quarterback, but I see this as even more reason why Johnson would continue to see a heavy volume of touches. Bell is the safe, conservative choice as he has the higher floor, so if the league was softer, he would be my preference. It is also possible that Bell has yet to establish his ceiling, and if that is the case, I would expect him to reach his full potential in a contract year.

Andy Hicks: Justin, who is more likely to repeat an action? Someone who has only done it once or someone who has done it three times? Once can be a fluke, twice is better, three times is a pattern of behavior. Bell only has three full seasons as well, which makes the strike rate 100% discounting suspension and injury affected non-rookie seasons. Johnson and Elliott also are batting 100% if we apply the same logic. Experience counts, especially when Bell is only 26 and not touchdown dependent like the other two, three if we include Gurley. Bell can get more touchdowns as well, which if he achieved there wouldn't even be a discussion. Who is to say that David Johnson aligns with the new system? Elliott may be used to a stacked box, but any receiving target would help in Dallas. Bell is missing Martavis Bryant.

I would like to see qualitative evidence that a running back can't handle four seasons as a workhorse but can manage three.

Justin Howe: There are more factors at play than that Bell has done it more often. We can't look at seasonal successes in a vacuum. Bell is a treasure, but I don't see him as an intrinsically stronger or safer play than Gurley or Elliott. He wasn't an efficient runner last year (4.0 per carry). He's never been a big touchdown threat - that's been a pattern, as Ryan pointed out, Bell is the running back version of Julio Jones. Ultimately, he checked in at RB2 thanks to an otherworldly workload, not because of his efficiency. And as Justin laid out above, Elliott topped him last year before his suspension. So I don't see him as some unstoppable force with a projectible 15-touchdown, or even 12-touchdown, ceiling. But I could certainly envision Elliott hitting that mark.

The Dallas offense may be toothless, and it may not be. But in either event, Elliott will be absolutely showered with attention, the engine of that unit in every way. 25-carry games will be the norm, which is predictable fantasy gold. Conversely, I'd be shocked if Bell were given another 27 touches a game. Had he played in Week 17, he'd have wound up with 433 last year, 13th-most of all time. The Steelers' play volume shot up from normal levels, too. I feel much more comfortable projecting slight regression in terms of Bell's workload.

It also matters a small amount that both Bell and Johnson are a few years older than both Gurley and Elliott. Not by a damning margin at all, but enough to ease the needle forward just a tad. Our Adam Harstad has churned out countless great contributions here, but my favorite Harstad work is his tackling of the running back aging process a few years ago. And per his research, it's fair to assign 26-year-old Bell and 27-year-old Johnson roughly double the chances of a notable injury or decline than 22-year-old Elliott. Still a low rate, around 12%, but double.

And the concern isn't that Bell is going to crater and rot - I'll never talk anyone out of drafting him. The concern isn't "Will Bell bust this year?" Rather, it's "Will Bell demonstrably outdo all of these studs this year?" We're splitting hairs to begin with, deciding among these amazing guys; even a 6-ish% dip in probability moves the needle.

If I started out with Bell inherently above the others, the above factors wouldn't really matter to me. But they're all on equal ground on my eyes, so I'm following the peripheral factors.

Bob Henry: It's such a great decision to have to make. So far, I've taken Bell whenever I've had the second pick. That said, I'm warming to Zeke Elliott given his superior production at the goal line and what I believe will be an increased role in the passing game. Elliott may very well top out around 40 catches, but I definitely think that his range of possibilities could extend upward into the 50 to 60 catch range. If so, he's easily the pick here given the number of touches he commands in the Cowboys offense compared to Bell. Zeke doesn't have an Antonio Brown or even a JuJu Smith-Schuster to contend with for targets.

David Johnson makes this decision even tougher because he also commands a huge amount of touches in a Cardinal offense that lacks proven weapons beyond him and Larry Fitzgerald. A legitimate threat for 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, I wouldn't blame anyone for taking Johnson second. He's that good, and it's not like he's returning from a knee injury or something serious. He is the best player in that offense and seems incredibly safe regardless of the game script.

That said, I still take Bell, but I would much, much prefer sitting in that fourth spot and taking whoever falls.