Le'Veon Bell Should Be the First Pick in Fantasy Football Drafts
For those picking at the top end of the first round this year, congrats, you're going to get a stud. But which superstar should you select? With the top choice, it's a two-man race between Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley, per early PPR average draft position (ADP) data from Fantasy Football Calculator.
Heading into Week 15 of last season, Bell was the highest-scoring back in PPR leagues. Then, in the final two weeks of the fantasy season, Gurley scored nearly 100 PPR points and left no doubt as to who the fantasy MVP was for 2017.
But that doesn't mean Gurley is the clear choice at the number-one slot. Let's take a look at why Bell is the best choice at the top of fantasy drafts.
Putting the “Bell” in Bellcow
Last season, Bell lead the league in carries despite sitting out Week 17 once the Pittsburgh Steelers had clinched their playoff seeding. For reference, LeSean McCoy, second in rushes, would’ve needed to play two more games at his season-long attempts-per-game pace to reach Bell’s 321 carry total. Bell’s 106 targets trailed only Christian McCaffrey (113) among running backs, and Bell's 85 catches were the 10th-most among all players, only 3 fewer than Julio Jones recorded.
So, yeah, Bell is a workhorse back in a league with very few of them. It wasn't his first season with that kind of usage, either.
In 2016, Bell missed three games serving a suspension and one more while resting for the playoffs. On a per-game basis that year, Bell’s 21.8 carries per game and 7.8 targets per game led the league.
If Bell is playing, he's getting the ball more than any other back. Taking out 2015, when he only played six games, Bell has averaged 67.0% of his team's carries and 14.8% of his team's targets.
Smart money -- like our projections -- has Bell being the most-used back in targets and carries again in 2018. In an opportunity-based game like fantasy, it's easy to see why Bell is so highly coveted.
There's been only one blemish on Bell's resume to date. He clearly has the volume to be the best back in fantasy, but he’s never scored touchdowns at the level of a player like last year’s highest-scoring back, Gurley, who scored 19 total touchdowns.
Over the past decade, the top-scoring back in PPR leagues has averaged for 16.5 touchdowns, per Fantasy Data. Bell’s single-season career high is 11, which he's reached twice (2014 and 2017). Over the past five years, running backs have averaged a 2.79% touchdown rate on carries and 2.77% touchdown rate on targets, per RotoVIz. Bell’s 1.86% scoring rate on carries and 2.85% touchdown rate on targets over his career have been a major factor in his pedestrian touchdown totals.
Touchdowns, obviously, often come in the red zone, so how does Bell's 2017 red-zone rushing volume compare to that of previous top PPR backs in Gurley (2017) and David Johnson (2016), according to data from Pro-Football Reference?
|Player||Red-Zone Attempts||Red Zone TDs||Attempts Inside 5||TDs Inside 5|
In overall red-zone touches, Bell’s 2017 looks remarkably similar to Gurley's 2017 campaign and Johnson's 2016 season. But looking at attempts inside the five clues us in to one reason why Bell hasn't had insane touchdown totals. Instead of going to Bell, the Steelers have put those optimal scoring chances in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger, who had the third-most attempts inside the five-yard line, per the RotoViz Screener). Gurley and Johnson didn't have that issue during their monster seasons.
Bell appears to be a red-zone workhorse, but as the Steelers move closer to the end zone, they tend to lean more on Big Ben, and that's put a cap on Bell's touchdown upside.
Where Does This Leave Bell?
Touchdowns are hard to predict. Given that a few plays can greatly swing a players touchdown total and that those plays have a lot of factors within them, they aren’t among the most likely stats to carry over year-to-year, something 4-for-4's T.J. Hernandez found to be true in his most predictable year-to-year stats series.
So when looking at the top backs this year, we should be leveraging what we can predict, and that comes down to touches. Bell is the most likely runner to lead the league in touches, which gives him both the highest predictable floor and upside, regardless of red-zone work. Our models are right in line with this, projecting Bell for the most attempts as well as having him as fantasy's top running back -- by a fairly healthy margin, at that.
While some may prefer to take Gurley or Johnson -- or maybe Ezekiel Elliott -- first overall in drafts this season, pay attention to what we know: volume is king, and Bell sits on that throne.