Phil Alexander: The Le'Veon Bell saga finally ended with the star running back signing a four-year deal with the New York Jets worth a maximum of $61 million. The general consensus has Bell behind the following running backs headed into 2019 fantasy drafts -- Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley.
Now that he's a member of the Jets, can you make a case for drafting Bell as a top-5 running back over any of those players?
Jason Wood: I may opt for Bell over Gurley. The way C.J. Anderson thrived in Los Angeles, and the news Gurley has arthritis in his knees warrants caution. I would also consider Melvin Gordon III, Nick Chubb, James Conner, and Sony Michel over Bell.
Matt Bitonti: I’m with you on Bell over Gurley, Jason. The knee issues Gurley played through during the Super Bowl run might linger into next season. And on the offensive line, the Rams lost two starters in center John Sullivan and left guard Rodger Saffold. They have developmental players like Joe Noteboom and Jamil Demby, but this is a step backward in the short term. Meanwhile, the Jets traded with Oakland for left guard Kelechi Osemele and are rumored to be in the mix for former Dolphins guard Josh Sitton. Their run-blocking could be greatly improved.
Andy Hicks: Count me in for Bell ahead of Gurley for the same reasons Jason and Matt cited. I might even take Bell ahead of Kamara and McCaffrey, but need to see how their respective rosters take shape by the end of the offseason. In McCaffrey’s case, the health of Cam Newton is also a big factor. Sam Darnold made strides towards the end of last season, and if he continues to improve, Bell is the type of complement who can launch the Jets offense back to fantasy prominence.
Daniel Simpkins: I can’t bring myself to take Bell in the top five despite the volume he’s likely to get. I just don’t trust the Jets regime to put their players in the best position to succeed. We saw gross mismanagement of DeVante Parker, Kenyan Drake, and others from Adam Gase and his staff in Miami. I don’t trust Gase to change his stripes.
I would rather take Gordon and Conner over Bell and it’s not close for me. Both have more stable offensive situations in which they’ll be the primary ball carrier.
Alessandro Miglio: Bell won’t produce the kinds of numbers he did in Pittsburgh. Not only is he getting a severe downgrade on offense, but he is also a year removed from playing football. All the running backs being taken ahead of him deserve to be, including Gurley.
Dan Hindery: I currently have Bell behind Barkley, Elliott, McCaffrey, Kamara, and Gordon. With the possible exception of Barkley, each of those guys is in a better offense and each is younger than Bell. Bell probably has a higher ceiling than Gordon, but Alessandro is right -- we don’t know how Bell will respond from a year away from football.
The toughest call for me is Bell versus Gurley at RB6. I have Bell over Gurley but I’m keeping an especially close eye on news out of Los Angeles on Gurley’s knee condition. For now, I’m erring on the side of caution in early best ball drafts and trying to let other people draft Gurley because I’m worried the Rams could try to limit his touches during the regular season. It feels strange and a bit uncomfortable to pass on Gurley in the mid-first round of best ball drafts, and it could certainly backfire, but that’s where I’m at right now.
Will Grant: The biggest problem I see Bell facing is the lack of talent around him. When he was with Pittsburgh, he had guys like Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster to prevent defenses from stacking the box against him. There's little doubt Robby Anderson and Jamison Crowder are a significant downgrade in that department. When you combine the depleted supporting cast and year away from football, Bell is a second-round pick for me this year.
In addition to the consensus top-5 backs, I would consider Conner or Gordon over Bell. Conner stepped in for the Steelers and their running game didn’t skip a beat. With Antonio Brown’s 15 touchdowns from last season vacated, Conner might get more opportunities in the red zone. Gordon missed four games last year and still finished with almost 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns. If he plays a full 16 games, he's right there with the position’s elite.
Justin Howe: I would still spend a first on Bell, but I always seek to open the draft with a high-volume running back. At the very least, I would take him over any of the first-round wide receivers.
Since my strategy is to chase touches, I'll probably target Bell ahead of Kamara for now. Gurley, too, since it's March and we're still in the dark about his knee. Projecting volume, though, I prefer Gordon and his locked-in situation to the uncertainty around Bell on a new team. Maybe Joe Mixon also.
Chad Parsons: I am skeptical of Bell on multiple fronts. He’s coming off a missed season at 27 years old -- historically the peak production age for running backs. Changing teams is generally not a good thing for a player’s fantasy production, and in this case, Bell is shifting from the perfect system in Pittsburgh to a questionable one with Gase and the Jets. Bell still has top-12 running back upside, and a top-18 floor based on projected volume alone, but the ship has sailed on the elite RB1 numbers he posted with the Steelers. I wouldn't take Bell in the top-5 running backs, and unlike Justin, I would prefer DeAndre Hopkins over him as well.
Sigmund Bloom: Bell over Gurley is likely the only one, pending more news on Gurley's knee and watching the Rams moves at running back closely for clues on their internal evaluation of his knee. It's impossible to know exactly how much of Bell's value was created by him and how much was created by the Steelers offense, but the production by other Steelers backs during his absences points towards a drop off coming in a less efficient and explosive offense.
Phil Alexander: Since 2014, Adam Gase's offenses have ranked 23rd, 22nd, 26th, 24th, and 20th in running back receptions. Are you worried Gase will squander Bell's value as a pass-catcher?
Jason Wood: I'm not only worried about Bell's reception totals, but I'm also concerned about his overall touches. Gase had Lamar Miller in his prime and refused to give him a full workload. He then refused to give Kenyan Drake regular touches, despite Drake performing well on a per-touch basis. Logic dictates Bell will be treated differently given the investment, but we can't be certain of the outcome until we see it on the field.
Alessandro Miglio: As a Dolphins fan, I am particularly well-positioned to be pessimistic about Bell’s opportunity in an Adam Gase offense. Granted, Miami’s quarterback situation was poor, but Gase doesn’t deserve a pass for misusing Drake and not recognizing what he had in Damien Williams. There's no guarantee Bell will even be a bell cow in spite of his contract -- Gase is just that perplexing as a head coach.
Dan Hindery: I’m sorry, but you don’t give Bell huge money in free agency unless you anticipate a big role for him in the passing game. He adds value as a pure runner also, but nowhere near $13 million worth. Strategically, Bell’s biggest impact comes from the mismatch opportunities he provides as a pass-catcher. Gase’s play calling may keep Bell from catching 90 passes but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t catch 70+ (assuming he stays healthy). Lamar Miller and Kenyan Drake are nowhere near Bell’s level, so no one can say with any certainty Gase will fail to involve him as a pass-catcher.
Justin Howe: Exactly, Dan. It's an established fact Bell is a difference maker in the passing game. Gase's finishes are what they are, but there isn’t enough there to draw conclusions. After all, no other coach has coaxed much receiving production from Jay Ajayi or Frank Gore either.
I expect Gase is capable of playing to Bell’s strength as a receiver. Let's not forget Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford combined to draw 100 targets in Gase's lone Chicago season. His running game had a similar dynamic in Miami, and in a truncated 2017 role (477 snaps), Kenyan Drake saw 48 targets of his own.
Gase won’t just ignore Bell's primary strength. Maybe he won’t post the receiving numbers we’re used to from Pittsburgh, but I'll be surprised if Bell plays 16 games and lands below 60 catches.
Will Grant: We also have to consider the lack of talent the Jets have at wide receiver. Bell might be the best one on the team.
Matt Bitonti: Ideally, Bell out of the backfield will be Sam Darnold's security blanket. Gase's past trends are a concern. As a Jets fan, there are many aspects of the Gase hire which are concerning. Still, the NFL is a league where contracts dictate targets. Will is right to question the other passing game options -- Quincy Enunwa, Anderson, and Crowder at wideout, with Chris Herndon at tight end likely serving a 2 game suspension to start the year. Who else is going to command touches?
Andy Hicks: Gase’s history has to be considered, but if he fails to utilize Bell effectively after the Jets gave him such a rich contract, he may not last more than one season in New York.
Sigmund Bloom: The next year that passes without Gase doing something inexplicable with his running backs as a head coach will be the first. More than his track record of lack of use of backs in the passing game, I'd be worried about how fickle and inconsistent he was with Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake in recent years.
Phil Alexander: On the Pittsburgh side, James Conner was a top-5 running back in PPR leagues before getting injured in Week 13 last season. Do you think he showed enough to enter 2019 as the team's unquestioned feature back?
Jason Wood: There is no evidence Mike Tomlin wants a committee backfield. Bell had the heaviest per-game workload of the modern era. DeAngelo Williams was the sole bell cow in his tenure, despite being on the wrong side of 30 years old. Conner duplicated Bell's fantasy value last year in 13 games. When he went down, Jaylen Samuels received all the touches. As long as Conner is healthy, he's got one of the highest floors of any player being taken in the first two rounds.
Daniel Simpkins: I don’t see Samuels as a player poised to take significant touches away from Conner. He’s not a better player than Conner and is only worth drafting as injury insurance.
Alessandro Miglio: I agree. Tomlin’s history has shown us Conner is the man until an injury occurs. He was fantastic in Bell's stead last year, and there is little reason to believe he won't be again. If Samuels shows out in the preseason, maybe there’s cause to re-evaluate.
Matt Bitonti: I don’t know, guys. The Steelers seemed to prioritize getting Conner touchdowns last season to prove they didn't need Bell. This is not the same as committing to him for 2019. Conner did, in fact, get hurt late in the season and durability could be a concern. Samuels is a talented backup who runs hard, and the team could draft another mid-round back to feed the pipeline.
Andy Hicks: Conner will start for the Steelers in 2019 and they will take every day of his rookie contract before deciding his long term future. Maybe Pittsburgh ends up undervaluing Conner like they did Bell, but they’ll give him every chance to duplicate his 2018 performance before they decide to extend his rookie deal. Samuels is a backup at this stage and didn’t do enough to usurp Conner as the clear leader in the backfield.
Chad Parsons: Unless the Steelers surprise us by taking an early-round running back in April, Conner will be the unquestioned starter and an easy Round 1 pick in fantasy leagues.
Will Grant: Samuels filled in nicely when Conner went down but needed an injury to ever sniff the field in the first place. I expect Conner to resume feature back duties with Samuels in a limited, situational role unless injuries strike.
Dan Hindery: Conner absolutely showed enough to lock down the lead role in Pittsburgh for 2019. I expect him to again be a workhorse as a runner and at least somewhat involved as a pass-catcher. But I’m giving Samuels more credit than the rest of the group. He really flashed in the passing game down the stretch. The Steelers have traditionally not been a running back by committee team, but Samuels could very well have carved out a role going forward — perhaps as the third-down back.
Justin Howe: I’m not buying Samuels on passing downs, Dan. The guys alluded to it, but from 2016-17, Pittsburgh’s lead back (Bell or DeAngelo Williams) accounted for a stunning 87% of the team’s total running back opportunities. Last year, over 13 games as the starter, Conner gobbled up 84% himself. Samuels should enter the year as a situational chess piece, but he’s not a demonstrably better receiver than Conner.
Sigmund Bloom: This is a question of whether the Steelers are committed to a one-back approach, as it is has appeared for many years, or if they will look at what they have in Conner and Jaylen Samuels and use them appropriately. Samuels is one of the best receiving backs in the league and he showed he wasn't a liability as a runner last year. Conner wore down and the Steelers would be smart to use him at less than the 80+ percent rate they have used their lead backs at in recent years. Conner is the still the lead back, but maybe with fewer snaps and touches per game than last year.
Phil Alexander: Pick one for 2019 -- Bell or Conner?
Jason Wood: Right now, I'm leaning toward Bell but depending on how ADP shakes out, I can see taking Conner in the middle of Round 2 versus Bell at the end of Round 1.
Daniel Simpkins: Conner. And it’s not particularly close.
Alessandro Miglio: Conner.
Matt Bitonti: I have Bell higher and it's not just because I’m a Jets fan. Whether it turns out better to take Conner in Round 2 instead of Bell in Round 1 will depend on Conner’s ability to stay healthy and productive through the fantasy playoffs.
Andy Hicks: Both Bell and Conner profile as top-10 backs for 2019, but I would lean Bell if forced to choose. Conner may have the edge in touchdowns, but Bell will see the heavier volume.
Chad Parson: Conner.
Will Grant: It’s James Conner in a walk-off. He’ll have the opportunity and surrounding talent to finish near the top of the fantasy running back heap.
Dan Hindery: Bell feels like a safer bet to catch 60+ passes. It’s enough to place him ahead of Conner in my running back rankings.
Justin Howe: At the moment, give me Conner over Bell. I trust his quarterback, offense, youth, and readiness significantly more, so I expect similar volume but more touchdown opportunity.
Sigmund Bloom: I'll take Bell's longer track record of elite numbers, especially in the passing game. We also can't know how much of a hit the Steelers offense will take without Antonio Brown.
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