Fantasy Football Roundtable: Should You Draft Le'Veon Bell or Todd Gurley First Overall?
Since Todd Gurley entered the league in 2015, it's become apparent that he and Le'Veon Bell are two of the premier running backs in the NFL. It's been a bit of a roller coaster the past three years, though.
Gurley started the 2015 injured as he recovered from a torn ACL in college, but he proceeded to destroy the competition the rest of the way. He was a fantasy bust in 2016, but then followed that up by winning leagues in 2017.
Bell also missed the start of the 2015 season, but it was due to suspension, not injury. The injury bug bit him a few weeks after his return, however, as he managed to play in just six games that year. But since then, Bell has returned value like the top fantasy pick he's been, finishing in the top two among running backs in PPR fantasy points per game in 2016 and 2017.
Looking toward 2018, how should fantasy gamers approach the top of the draft this year? Should they go with Bell or Gurley?
Well, we have two numberFire analysts who are set to defend the player they believe has the best chance to finish as the top running back in fantasy in 2018. Marc Mathyk has joined me (Akash) to debate the merits of the two running backs who are being selected at the top of fantasy draft boards, and we each have our own reasons behind our preferred back.
The Great Debate
Akash: In fantasy football, volume is king. Based on the number of carries and targets he received last year, Bell had the most fantasy-friendly role of any player in 2018. Bell even ran more routes per game than Julio Jones.
Routes Run per Game (2016-2017)
Le'Veon Bell (33.0)
A.J. Green (32.8)
Julio Jones (30.7)
Tyreek Hill (24.6)
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) May 25, 2018
Gurley, meanwhile, is a major regression candidate, particularly in the touchdown category. Based on Mike Clay’s opportunity-adjusted touchdowns metric, the only running back to score more touchdowns than expectation than Gurley did in 2017 was Alvin Kamara. With the Pittsburgh Steelers again opting to allow Bell to play out the season on the franchise tag -- rather than extending him -- expect them to continue to feed Bell all he can handle before allowing him to test the waters in free agency.
Marc: Obviously, the ultimate goal in fantasy is to win. According to the results from NFL.com fantasy leagues, 47.1% of the champions had Gurley on their team in 2017. Only 26.9% won with Le'Veon Bell, although some of that is due to Gurley's second-round ADP last year while Bell was a top-two pick. Not only was Gurley clutch down the playoff stretch, he was money all year. Gurley was the highest-scoring running back in the league, averaging 25.5 PPR points per game. Bell averaged just 22.7, or 2.8 fewer points per game. Gurley was able to achieve all of this despite having more than 60 fewer touches than Bell. Expect Gurley to benefit from more volume in 2018 as he continues to be the focal point of an uber-efficient Sean McVay offense.
Akash: While Gurley certainly was a league-winner, that was just last year. We know that it is extremely hard to repeat as a top-12 running back. That makes what Bell has done over the past few years even more impressive. Gurley, on the other hand, had a dud of a fantasy season sandwiched between two seasons of impressive productivity. When both are healthy, Bell’s floor has been a top-flight fantasy running back, while Gurley demonstrated in 2016 that his floor is far lower than that. It’s also dangerous to assume that the Los Angeles Rams' offense will continue to be efficient. History tells us that teams that increase their fantasy scoring as drastically as the Rams did fall off in the following season.
Marc: The writing was on the wall that this was going to be Bell's last year as a Steeler. In the past two NFL Drafts, the Steelers invested in running backs. In 2017, they spent a third-round pick on local boy James Conner, and this year they drafted Jaylen Samuels in Round 5. Not surprisingly, both are built similarly to Bell and have the potential to be all-purpose backs. Since it may be Bell's final season in black and yellow, many believe that Pittsburgh will run him into the ground before he departs for free agency. However, it would make some sense for the Steelers to see what they have in Conner and Samuels, so they know what to expect post-Bell. It's not a given Bell sees the same insane volume he got in 2017.
Akash: It’s dangerous to assume that the Steelers will sprinkle in Conner and Samuels while Bell is healthy. Even as a third-round pick, Conner was invisible last year, earning just two carries per game while failing to catch a ball all season. The Steelers took Samuels on Day 3 of the draft to bolster their running back depth. It would be surprising to see the Steelers give him or Conner anything near a sizeable role. Samuels wasn’t even a true running back in college, instead playing more of an H-Back role. It's hard to believe that as time is running out on Big Ben’s career, Pittsburgh will do anything other than ride their horses in 2018. Both Bell's knowledge of the playbook and his pass-blocking ability should keep him on the field for the majority of the season.
Marc: In 2016, Gurley hit a floor he will never hit again. He had the anemic Jeff Fisher as his coach and ran behind one of the worst run-blocking units in the league, as they ranked 27th in Adjusted Line Yards that year. In 2017, they were third. Bell has never experienced an offensive line so poor, as Pittsburgh's offensive line, during his five-year tenure, has ranked 22nd, 6th, 8th, 3rd, and 7th. Playing behind such a stellar offensive line, Bell's lack of efficiency last year is worrying. In fact, by yards per carry, it was his least efficient season since his rookie year -- granted it is hard to be super efficient with that kind of volume. Bell also was a lot less dominant in the red zone than Gurley was as he scored eight fewer touchdowns than Gurley despite seeing the most red-zone touches in football.
Akash: It is certainly hard to imagine a season as disastrous as 2016 replicating itself, but the Rams likely won’t be as efficient an offense as they were in 2017. Most notably, they were the luckiest team in football at avoiding injuries. This probably won't continue, especially considering that three of LA’s offensive line starters are 30 years of age or older. Any injury up front could hurt Gurley's efficiency. Meanwhile, Bell has an offensive line that ranks fourth heading into the season, according to Pro Football Focus, and includes two former first-round picks -- David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey -- in the prime of their careers.
Marc: Touchdowns drive fantasy points, and ultimately Bell's lack of touchdown production with a top-10 offensive line is a concern. Bell has only 42 touchdowns in 5 years and has never had a season with double-digit rushing scores. He is the Julio Jones of running backs. Gurley, though, has 35 touchdowns in three years, and that's including his disastrous 2016 campaign. Gurley's efficiency was tremendous in 2017. While one could argue that it isn't sustainable, it isn't anything like Kamara's epic year of per-touch efficiency. Out of all running backs with at least 250 carries and 50 receptions, Gurley's 0.04 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per rush tied for second, behind only Kareem Hunt. His Reception NEP per catch was far and away the best -- at 0.85 -- of that sample. Bell, on the other hand, had a -0.01 Rushing NEP per rush and his 0.41 Reception NEP per catch was only eighth-best among those backs.
There is a lot to consider when drafting either of these stud running backs, as they both play in top-notch offenses and have compelling cases for finishing as the top back in fantasy.
Each player excels in a different way. For Gurley, it was through his tremendous efficiency last year. For Bell, it's due to a crazy workload as he has led all running backs in snaps since 2013.
While you probably can't make a bad choice here, which player you ultimately draft could decide your fate for the 2018 fantasy football season.