Player Spotlight: Le'Veon Bell

A detailed examination of Le'Veon Bell's fantasy prospects for the 2015 season.

Welcome to the Top

Le'Veon Bell ranked RB15 as a rookie, but he was among the more divisive players entering 2014. His supporters noted that he finished RB15 in spite of missing three games, and the fact he entered 2014 as the unquestioned feature back. His detractors worried about his low yards-per-carry average (3.5) and the sorry state of the Steelers defense (forcing the game script to be more pass heavy). Let's hope for your sake, you sided with the optimists. Bell dominated last season and established himself as one of the league's elite fantasy commodities:

  • 290 rushes (3rd in the NFL)
  • 1,361 yards rushing (2nd)
  • 4.7 yards per rush (10th)
  • 83 receptions (2nd)
  • 854 receiving yards (1st)
  • 11 touchdowns (6th)
  • 371 fantasy points (PPR, 1st)

Underlying Bell's gaudy 2014 numbers was a well rounded foundation of top-tier skills:

  • 4th in yards after contact (704 yards)
  • 3rd in missed tackles as a runner (55)
  • 0 fumbles
  • 8th in catch rate (83%)
  • 1st in yards after the catch (826 yards)
  • 1st in missed tackles as a receiver (29)

There's nothing Bell is incapable of achieving.

Quantifying the 2-Game Suspension

If Bell were guaranteed to play a 16-game schedule, he would be the consensus #1 choice in drafts. Unfortunately, he's suspended for 2 games due to an arrest for marijuana possession. For some, the 2-game suspension changes Bell's value dramatically. The argument for penalizing Bell goes something like this:

  • 2 games = 15% of a 13-week fantasy season
  • 2 games = 14% of a 12-week fantasy season

Those numbers may be mathematically accurate, but it's not fair to characterize the situation this way. Remember, you're not forced into taking zeros for those first two games. You have the opportunity to start someone else in Bell's place. He won't be as productive, but you should be able to field a solid RB3 in Bell's place if you draft correctly.

14 games of Bell + 2 games of an average fantasy RB3 = A Top Overall Pick

  • Bell's projected fantasy points (PPR) in 14 games -- 335
  • Bell's points per game = 23.9
  • 5-year average points per game for RB30 (a middling RB3) = 11.2
  • Average points per game of Bell (14 games) + RB30 (2 games) = 22.3

A running back that averages 22.3 fantasy points per game would've ranked:

  • 3rd in 2014
  • 2nd in 2013
  • 1st in 2012
  • 2nd in 2011
  • 2nd in 2010

As long as you have a viable 3rd running back on your roster, Bell's 2-game suspension is easily digestible. You will still get production that ranks 1st or 2nd at the position, in the aggregate.

Positives

  • Bell is one of the few running backs that is 'game script' proof -- He can handle 20+ carries or catch 10 passes. He's "down and distance" agnostic
  • The Steelers offensive line is excellent -- Our own Matt Bitonti ranks the Steelers line 4th overall
  • Bell projects as nearly 10 points per game better than the positional baseline -- Bell projects to score 158 more fantasy points than RB24, nearly 10 points more per game than the baseline
  • Bell is young and has a minimal career workload -- So many of this year's consensus Top 10 fantasy running backs have age, injury and workload questions. Bell does not

Negatives

  • Bell is going to miss two games -- Bell is going to miss roughly 15% of your regular season. You're going to have to ensure you prioritize a high value RB3 on draft day to offset his absence
  • Touchdown productivity -- Bell has only scored 16 rushing touchdowns in two seasons. While that's not bad, it doesn't rank as elite

Projections

YEAR GRSHYDTDTARGRECYDTDFumL
2013 PIT 13 244 860 8 66 45 399 0 1
2014 PIT 16 290 1361 8 105 83 854 3  
2015 PROJ-Dodds 14 230 1024 10   58 493 3 1
2015 PROJ-Henry 14 255 1100 9   64 610 2 1
2015 PROJ-Wood 14 253 1255 10   70 630 3 2
2015 PROJ-Tremblay 13 251 1154 7   57 549 2 3

Final Thoughts

Le'Veon Bell was the best fantasy running back in PPR leagues last year, and was the 2nd best back in standard leagues. Today's NFL is characterized by specialists. Most teams prefer to use a committee approach. Bell is one of a handful of true workhorses. He's a sure bet to touch the ball 20-25 times per game, and given his otherworldly skill as a receiver, he will get touches regardless of game script. Even with the 2-game suspension, Bell projects as the top fantasy running back this year. There are very few (if any) players that are credible alternatives with the 1st overall pick.


Other Viewpoints

Our own Sigmund Bloom agrees with me that Bell is worth the 1st overall pick:

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!

Our own Alex Miglio thinks it's wiser to avoid Bell early:

There are certainly paths to success with Bell, they just have a greater degree of difficulty or rely more on good fortune. Avoiding Bell is the pragmatic thing to do, but gambling on him could pay off with savvy roster management and a dose of good luck early in the season. And he could certainly fall into the middle of the first round or later depending on proclamations and valuations from various fantasy gaming sites. 

This boils down to evaluating risk. Bell's metrics and situation point to big numbers—even if they fall off a bit—if he can stay healthy. It's inarguable, however, that drafting him means taking on more risk, based on everything laid out above. 

Go big or go home, right? In drafting Bell early, you could be going big and home all at once.



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