One of the burning questions of fantasy drafts this summer will revolve around Le’Veon Bell and whether to take him with a top five pick. Fantasy analysts have already started to dig trenches on both sides. Bell was a beast that delivered titles last year, but you're also giving away almost one-quarter of your first-round pick's games right off the bat.
Should you take Le’Veon Bell with a top five pick?
VBD, not total points is the correct way to value a player- that is the cumulative advantage the player gives over a replacement player - and that elite players at their position can still maintain #1 position at their spot despite missed games. He put Bell’s ridiculous run of production from Weeks 13-16 in historic perspective - the seventh best four-game stretch of all-time.
You win fantasy leagues by outscoring teams in a one-week showdown. Having a running back that can lap the field and score almost double the #12 PPR running back is a great start to that end. As a bonus, early losses can give you the advantage of waiver priority in leagues that reward waiver priority in reverse order of standings.
Yes, you will concede the firepower of your #1 pick the first two weeks. If you’re really lucky you’ll start 2-0 or even 1-1 and not have your playoff odds materially affected by the loss of Bell. In a worst case scenario, you’re 0-2, which is not insurmountable, but certainly puts you behind the eight ball.
There’s a factor more in your control than luck that can help you avoid that 0-2 start and be able fully enjoy the benefits of owning Bell in the playoffs: you already know you have Bell for the rest of your draft, and can alter your draft strategy to compensate for his projected absence. Who are players you should target if you start your draft with Le’Veon Bell?
DeAngelo Williams, RB, PIT (10th round or later) - Duh. The Anti-Bell camp will use this as an opportunity to point out the cost of an extra roster spot, but we should also see it as denying another team a cheap, viable RB2/Flex option for the first two weeks of the season. Williams still has game, and the Steelers offense should be very explosive and provide scoring opportunities for the back who is clearly the best on the roster after Bell. Taking Williams isn't an absolute edict if you start with Bell, but the chance to get a starter to fill in for him in the 10th round or later should be viewed as a mitigating circumstance, not a negative one.
Rashad Jennings, RB, NYG (7th round or later) - Shane Vereen has been the hottest name in the Giants backfield, and it’s certainly possible that the implementation of Vereen in the offense will catch opponents off guard early in the season and get him off to a hot start. Jennings still stands out more to me as the better early-season investment. The Giants open at Dallas and then home against the Falcons, so they could be one of the most productive offenses in the league over the first two weeks. Jennings is the veteran back with the everydown skillset, and his durability worries don’t loom as large in the narrower focus of the early season. He came out of the gate with low RB1 numbers in PPR leagues over the first three weeks of the season last year, and Jennings could do that again when your team needs it the most.
Tony Romo, QB, DAL (8th round or later) - Romo’s efficiency numbers were off the charts last year - at Aaron Rodgers levels - so it stands to reason that if he has to throw more in 2015, fantasy growth is possible. The Cowboys will be breaking in a new backfield early in the season, and Romo will face two offenses that can keep up in track meets - the Giants and Eagles. Neither of those teams have formidable defenses, and that also applies to the Cowboys. As long as Dez Bryant isn’t out in some sort of holdout scenario, Romo could be primed for the hottest fantasy start of the QB1 pack.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, CAR (4th round or later) - Stewart fits in a pattern on this list of backs who have a discount because of past durability concerns, which shouldn’t bother you as much when you are placing more importance on the first two weeks of the season. Stewart has no real competition for touches in the backfield, and his Panthers open with Jacksonville on the road and then Houston at home. Carolina can easily win both or all of those games, maybe even going away in a few cases. That should ensure that Stewart gets at least 15-18 touches and potentially the 20 or more carries he got in Panthers’ wins during weeks 14-16 last year. He would be a reasonable low RB1 in PPR leagues for that stretch if you didn't take a back with your second or third-round picks.
Miami Dolphins D/ST (12th round or later) - The Dolphins start out at Washington (Robert Griffin III) and at Jacksonville (Blake Bortles). They will be introducing the league to what happens when Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake play on the same defensive line.
Devonta Freeman, RB, ATL (9th round or later) - If there’s going to be a time that Freeman is treated as the “incumbent” running back in Atlanta, it’s going to be at the beginning of the season. Even if Tevin Coleman wins the majority of early down snaps, Freeman should still get a lot of work on passing downs and in two-minute drill situations. The real draw here is a schedule of Philadelphia and at the Giants to open. Neither of those teams make me think “good defense” and neither does Atlanta. Any of them could turn into a shootout. If Tevin Coleman starts to distance himself from Freeman (once they are both healthy), turn your focus to him.
Eric Decker, WR, NYJ (9th round or later) - As it is Decker may be a value you shouldn’t pass on. He might produce at or close to Brandon Marshall’s level, but cost three or four rounds cheaper than Marshall. The reason you want Decker even more if you take Bell is the team’s Week 2 matchup at Indianapolis. It is likely to be high-scoring games (especially with the Jets missing Sheldon Richardson on his four-game suspension) and Decker should get the lesser corner more often and avoid Vontae Davis. Marshall could help in a similar fashion, but will come at a greater cost than Decker.
Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr, RB, CLE (7th round or later) - Hesitation to invest in the Browns offense is normal, but remember that they have an offensive line that was routinely creasing opponents a la Dallas before Alex Mack went down last year. Crowell should pull away from Terrance West as an earlydown back, and Johnson will get a ton of targets with an opportunity to make his role grow quickly. The Browns open with the Jets on the road, and then have verya winnable game at home against the Titans. The games should be close, if they aren’t controlled by the Browns defense and offensive line. Both picks offer season-long upside and give hopeful one-week plays while Bell is out.