The last time we saw Le’Veon Bell on the field, it was in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform in the divisional round of the 2017 playoffs. He put the hurt on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stout defense, finishing with 155 offensive yards and a pair of scores in the 45-42 loss.
Following a contract dispute that resulted in the star sitting out the entire 2018 campaign, he walked into the open arms of the New York Jets in free agency. Bell is barely 27 years old and had more than a year to recover from the abuse of 406 touches in the ’17 season. Nevertheless, question marks will swirl as he enters the heart of the 2019 fantasy football draft season as a first-round pick.
Typically speaking, the drop-off for a back after such a massive workload is precipitous. The body can handle only so much beating before it says no mas. However, the year away should work in his favor, mainly because it happened during the prime of his career.
Bell’s do-all nature affords the Jets the ability to put the ball in his hands in low-risk situations to help avoid heavy contact. Slamming straight up the gut of the defense time after time is not likely to be found in the designs of how he’ll be utilized by Adam Gase.
Conversely, the concerns about Bell sitting out for a season boil down to whether he will be in football shape early in the year and if he is predisposed to soft-tissue injuries related to such a layoff. We won’t have an answer to the latter until it is too late for fantasy planning, although the worry of injuries really shouldn’t ever be more than a part of one’s equation when evaluating players. In shape? Well, we should have a pretty good idea about that in training camp. It’s unlikely Bell will sniff the field in the preseason, and he doesn’t need the reps, even with the vacation.
The Steelers were unafraid to pound No. 26 into the turf, because the writing was on the wall at that point. How much Bell is utilized by Gase may be directly tied to New York’s spot in the standings. The four-year contract basically boils down to a two-year pact. If the Jets compete for the playoffs in 2019, Gase will burden his new star with a crippling workload. Given Gase’s displeasure in the lucrative contract awarded to a running back, along with the coach’s stubborn nature, Bell will not be immune from another hefty heaping of handles, perhaps even after New York falls out of contention.
Sam Darnold’s maturation will go a long way in determining how effective Bell can be in 2019. Defenses must believe the Jets can pass the ball with at least a modicum of competency, or the box will be heavily stacked against stopping Bell. We’re not exactly looking at the most fearsome receiving corps, regardless of how well Darnold progresses in Year 2. There is a reciprocal relationship between the young quarterback and his new star back each finding success, however. Bell’s presence will help Darnold find room to work through the air.
The offensive line in Pittsburgh played a major role in Bell’s success. Sure, he’s a special talent and has patience we haven’t seen in ages, but the Steelers consistently provided open holes. New York has the requisite talent to give Bell the chances he needs to find daylight, although it will require a cohesive effort from modest collective talent. The addition of left guard Kelechi Osemele could be pivotal in Bell finding success.
Backup running back Ty Montgomery has looked sharp in OTAs, but that won’t be enough to notably cut into Bell’s work during the regular season. Montgomery, a former receiver, allows the Jets to interchangeably utilize he and Bell in distinct passing situations, possibly even lining up both players at the same time.
Fantasy football outlook
Given the lack of creativity we saw from how Gase utilized Kenyan Drake in Miami, one has to question whether he’ll be up for scheming Bell into optimal situations.
Bell is obviously more effective in leagues that reward receptions, but he’s still a top-flight back in standard-scoring formats. In 2019 drafts, his average placement is 9:06 in PPR, which makes him the seventh RB chosen. Two receivers typically go before him in this scoring system. Those drafting in the non-PPR formats have opted for Bell in the same spot.
There is plenty of risk to be found in drafting a player in the top 10 after he sat out an entire year. The degree of peril is lessened given the uniqueness of Bell’s style of play, and pretty much any player going immediately after him has a list of concerns, as well.
That said, it is understandable if a gamer chooses to bypass Bell entirely. Reaching for him isn’t advised; consider No. 6 overall to be his ceiling in PPR. Plenty of gamers will have to decide between Bell and David Johnson and/or Melvin Gordon. The Los Angeles back is arguably safer in standard leagues, and for as good as we’ve seen Johnson play, he has just one season of elite production. Bell has been a stud every year from 2014-17.
Expecting a monster year is unfair to yourself, but there is not enough reason to buy into the idea he will fall off of the fantasy map after sitting out one year. He is a transcendent talent and fits any system. Bell’s biggest enemy is likely to be a possible nip from the injury bug. Be more afraid of a bum hammy, a tweaked groin muscle, or a sprained ankle than anything Jets related.
Montgomery is no better than a handcuff to Bell, although he makes for a speculative addition for gamers who didn’t get their paws on the former Steelers star and want a late-round gamble in reserve.