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Why LeVeon Bell is still the #1 PPR RB

A look at why Le'Veon Bell should still be the #1 RB on your PPR board despite a looming three-game suspension

The news came down this morning that Pittsburgh RB Le'Veon Bell will face a three-game suspension for his role as the driver in a marijuana/DUI incident during the 2014 preseason. His passenger, LeGarrette Blount, will face a one-game suspension. The immediate response by some has been to move Bell out of the RB1 (and maybe #1 overall player) position (with a decent-sized gap) that Bell occupied in PPR leagues. After all, three games is almost 1/4 of the fantasy regular season! Before we even get into the issue of whether Bell's suspension will be reduced on appeal (which won't change the calculus of its effect on his value as much as you think), it's not difficult to take a stand on Bell's value in PPR leagues in the wake of this news.

How should we factor missed games at the beginning of the season into player value?

Of course, our Chase Stuart has already covered this a few years ago when the debate centered around Rob Gronkowski, who was unlikely to be ready for the season after offseason arm and back surgery. I'll let Chase explain:

...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... 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.

So, the crucial concept here is not "how many fewer points will Bell score because he is missing three games", it is "how much smaller does the total advantage he provides over his peers get because he is missing three games". Just looking at total points is wrong in part because you will start someone, whether it's DeAngelo Williams or the player you draft as your RB3. That player may not add to your advantage in those weeks, or even be a little below the baseline, so it's not trivial, but it's not as impactful as it would be if you had to take a zero because Bell is out.

how big is the advantage Bell provides over other ppr RB1 candidates?

This is where the rubber meets the road. While we can't know the future, we can look at the past for guidance. What 2014 tells us about the size of the gap between Bell and other top running backs might surprise you. Bell and the rest of the Steelers offense really came alive when Martavis Bryant joined the lineup in Week 7. While I understand if you think it is cheating to not include Weeks 1-6, I believe Weeks 7-16 provide the best simulation of Bell's value on a weekly basis for 2015.

From Weeks 7-16, Bell averaged 26.8 points per game in PPR scoring. The #2 running back, Arian Foster, averaged 22.1. Only seven other RBs were within 10 points per week of Bell's scoring, and one of them was Ronnie Hillman. The #12 RB, Ahmad Bradshaw, was at 14.9. Put that in perspective. Bell scored 11.9 more points per week than the RB12. Only Rob Gronkowski can offer than kind of advantage, although even Gronkowski didn't provide that kind of advantage over TE12 during the same stretch (10.6 to be exact). 

While the gap between RB1 and RB12 is impressive indeed, we are more concerned with the gap between RB1 and RB2 (your RB alternative). It was 4.7 in this case. While none of Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte, Demarco Murray or any other candidate to be RB2 on your board this year put that up, let's have Foster stand it for the theoretical RB2. By taking Bell you leave that 4.7 on the table for the first three weeks, and arguably more, as you would be starting someone at the RB12 if you're lucky. Let's say you are only able to muster up 11.8 from your fill-in RB. That's 45 points (3*15) that you left on the table. In the other 10 weeks, Bell is still going to be 42.3 (4.7*9) points better than RB2. So, those lost points are already basically cancelled out over the rest of the fantasy regular season. But we haven't gotten to the most important part yet! 

what about the playoffs?

Even if you take a small net loss giving up Bell's VBD for Weeks 1-3 and replacing him with an option around RB25-30 compared to the VBD Bell provides in Weeks 4-13, that still doesn't factor in the advantage he provides in the playoffs, which is magnified in value. Bell's advantage over RB2 and RB12 (6.5 and 13.8) was even bigger in the playoffs than it was over the entire Weeks 7-16 period last year. One might even argue that Bell having the first three weeks of the season off will make him that much more ready to dominate down the stretch. He will have three fewer weeks of wear and tear, and if the Steelers bye week happens to be in the middle of the season, he might not have more than five or six consecutive weeks of play over the course of the season heading into the fantasy playoffs. So the idea is that while the suspension could gobble up the VBD gap between Bell and RB2 during the regular season, it is intact for the playoffs where it matters most. Steve Buzzard wrote on the subject of how much more the playoff weeks are worth than the regular season weeks last year.

You might say, well what if I miss the playoffs because I took a close loss or two during those first three weeks due to Bell's absence? I'll admit that my aggressiveness as an analyst makes me not care much about this. First of all, you can draft later on specifically to cover Bell, whether it's by taking Williams or another back who is set up with an early schedule conducive to production or early opportunity while a rookie behind them on the depth chart is still getting up to speed. Second, if the difference between you making the playoffs and staying home is missing your first-round pick for three games, chances are your team wasn't good enough to make a title run anyway. I'm not looking to maximize your chances of making the playoffs, I want to maximize your chances of winning the title. If your team can't weather the storm of three weeks without Bell, especially when you can draft to limit its impact, then your team wasn't going anywhere anyway. While there could be a small fraction of teams that actually would have made the playoffs and won the title with say Lacy instead of Bell, I think the number of teams that would get knocked out of the playoffs because they had Lacy instead of Bell would be larger. Keeping Bell as your PPR RB1 embraces the "go big or go home" way of playing fantasy football.

what about Bell vs players at other positions or in other formats?

This is where the real debate lies. A three-game suspension, upheld on appeal, would give me more pause when weighing Bell against Rob Gronkowski. It might make me more inclined to take Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, or Antonio Brown if I can still get CJ Anderson in the mid-late second to be my RB1, or otherwise like my chances of finding an RB1 outside of the first round. 

Non-PPR or .5 PPR also make the decision more difficult. Bell did have 10 total scores in the nine-game stretch between Week 7 and 16 (he had a Week 12 bye), and he barely trailed Demarco Murray in total yards over the course of the entire season, but the gap between Bell and his 83 receptions shrinks in those formats when comparing to Jamaal Charles (40 receptions) and Eddie Lacy (42 receptions). There's a much better case for moving Bell out of the RB1 slot in those formats. Just don't base it on his total points over the course of the season.