Fantasy Court: The Case Against Le’Veon Bell in 2019
It’s August and draft season is in full swing, which means it must be time to start discussing Le’Veon Bell again. I get it, the guy was one of the highest-scoring fantasy football players of his generation and has carried plenty of fantasy teams to a #FootClanTitle or two. Unfortunately, he should no longer be mentioned when discussing first-round picks. He’s now on an inferior roster and starting the downside of his career. You’d be wise to stay ahead of the curve and avoid him before he becomes the dead weight on your roster that you feel obligated to start every week, even though he’s actually sinking your team.
The Year Off
When the Jets take on the Bills on September 8th for the first regular-season game, it will mark 602 days since Le’Veon Bell has stepped foot on the field for a competitive football game. During his extended offseason, he certainly didn’t appear too concerned about staying in peak football shape as he enjoyed life in South Beach and dropped a new rap album. He finally signed a contract, for less money than he was offered a year ago, with the New York Jets back in March.
The New Head Coach
New Jets head coach Adam Gase doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in fantasy running backs. Things were looking positive for Jay Ajayi after finishing as the RB11 in Gase’s first year in Miami, but he was traded away the following season after being used sporadically in the first seven games of the season. Once Ajayi was gone Gase spent the next season and a half doing whatever he could to limit Kenyan Drake‘s opportunities.
Gase also has a poor history of using running backs in the passing game, which is what lifted Bell to the elite level of fantasy production he enjoyed from 2014 to 2017. For his career, Bell has averaged a 16 game pace of 81 catches on 102 targets. The best pass-catching back that Gase has ever worked with as a head coach or coordinator was Matt Forte in 2015. That season he had a 16 game pace 55 catches on 72 targets. That might not seem so bad until you consider that Forte caught 102 passes on 130 targets in 2014 before Gase arrived.
You can’t blindly trust Bell’s volume in Gase’s offense either. Even if he is used as a workhorse, his high-volume usage wouldn’t equate to the same volume he saw in Pittsburgh. Since Bell entered the league in 2013 the Steelers have averaged 65.1 plays per game. In that same time span, since Gase became an offensive coordinator and later a head coach, his offenses have averaged just 62.9 plays per game. Take out Gase’s two years in Denver, when Peyton Manning probably called more plays than Gase, and that number drops to a dreadful 59.6 plays per game.
The New Team
Bell’s previous success has to be tied, at least in part, to the team success of the Steelers. James Conner stepped into Bell’s role in 2018 and produced 19.4 fantasy points per game, awfully comparable to the 19.9 that Bell produced in 2017. But Bell won’t be a part of the historically successful Steelers in 2019. He’s now on the Jets, a team that’s finished in last place in the AFC East for three consecutive seasons.
We don’t have much NFL data to go off of for Sam Darnold, the number three pick in the 2018 NFL draft who started 13 games for the Jets last season. He only threw to his running backs 74 times during his rookie campaign, connecting on 51 passes for 503 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers, which include four different running backs combined, would be considered a disappointing season for Bell based on current expectations.
Bell is being drafted as a workhorse back, but there are other guys that could steal some third down or passing situations from him. The Jets brought back Bilal Powell and singed Ty Montgomery this offseason, two running backs that have a history of success catching passes out of the backfield. It’s easy to imagine a season where they combine to pilfer a handful of targets each game from Bell’s workload.
The biggest downgrade in store for Bell in New York is the offensive line that he’ll be running behind. The Steelers offensive line has been consistently rated a top-five unit by Pro Football Focus and The Huddle, while the Jets are rated a bottom-five unit by the same sources. Even after trading for injury-riddled guard Alex Lewis and talking over-the-hill center Ryan Kalil out of retirement, the Jets can’t be expected to produce the same type of push up front that Bell is accustomed to running behind. That could be a huge issue for Bell considering his patented patient running style.
Le’Veon Bell has had a storied fantasy football career. I accept the fact that he’ll still have value in 2018; I’d gladly draft him in the third round as my second running back, but his days of elite production are behind him. When making your first picks in the draft you want to target sure things in good situations. Considering his year off, his new coach, and his new teammates, there are just too many variables to trust Bell with a high-end pick.