Is Le'Veon Bell a True Feature Back?

Some have questioned Bell's completeness as a running back. Can he be the Steelers go-to runner for years to come?

I am a huge fan of the TV show How I Met Your Mother. If you haven’t seen it, it’s very much an exaggerated slice of life: simultaneously so absurd and so deep, very emotional and extremely funny. The central action of the show sees Ted Mosby, a hopeless romantic, always chasing after “The One”, the woman he’s supposed to spend the rest of his life with. He often gets into problems, though (duh, it’s a comedy), because he idealizes the women he meets and puts them on a pedestal. He declares his love for them before he even knows them, because he wants so badly to find this one elusive person who will be everything he’d hoped for.

In a similar way, we do this with our sports heroes. We idealize them, both in personality and in their skills on the playing field. Some fans hope so badly that it’s this year, this quarterback - maybe he’ll be “The One”. As a Packers fan, I mentally begged Ted Thompson for years to draft a running back, and we hope now that maybe Eddie Lacy will stick as “The One”. Players like this can be everything we’ve ever hoped for. That’s the hopeless romantic in us all.

In a similar vein, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a running back in 2013 who they hope can be their “lifelong love” in Le’Veon Bell. His rookie year was very good, despite a scary foot injury, and Steeler fans knew they had their next Jerome Bettis. Then the Pittsburgh brass made a surprising offseason move by acquiring LeGarrette Blount to join their backfield. The Steelers have long been a team dedicated to the notion of a lead-back system, so what could this mean for their opinion on Bell as a complete back? Could this even mean the end of one of the bastions of one-back, smash-mouth football as we remember it?

Out To Pasture

Even the most casual NFL fan has seen the ongoing trend of a declining number of true lead backs in the league over the past few years. I discuss this in my running back draft value article here on numberFire. As of now, there are only a few true lead runners left, and even living legend Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings might reportedly cede some third-down opportunities this year to rookie Jerick McKinnon.

Were he able to stay healthy last year, Bell would have eclipsed 350 carries in his rookie season. This seems like an unsustainable and unheard of amount in this current league of running back committees and situational specialists. I decided to look at the state of the bell-cow back role in the modern NFL by examining the trend in high volume rushers over the past decade and a half. The chart below shows the amount of running backs by year who eclipsed 320 rushes in a season (20 rushes per game on average).

Season320+ RushersRush Att LeaderRushes
20005Eddie George404
20015Stephen Davis359
20025Ricky Williams383
20039Ricky Williams 392
20048Curtis Martin370
20058Shaun Alexander370
20067Larry Johnson417
20073Clinton Portis325
20083Michael Turner376
20093Chris Johnson358
20105Michael Turner334
20111Maurice Jones-Drew344
20124Arian Foster351
20130LeSean McCoy314

Excepting only some blips in 2010 and 2012, the number of true force-fed bell-cow backs has declined rapidly since 2006. Even the total for the season’s leader in rushing attempts has steadily declined as well. The league is transitioning more and more to suit players with specialist roles, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. So, how will this affect our friend Le’Veon?

Le’Veon Bell Cow

Bell played his college career at Michigan State, and garnered a reputation as a big-bodied player who tried to play too small. He was a good receiver out of the backfield, but didn’t hold up sometimes in pass protection.’s scouting profile even compared him to a one Mr. LeGarrette Blount, his new backfield mate in 2014. These concerns must have melted away, as Bell was able to garner an average of 22.23 touches per game as the true focal point of this Steelers offense. How did this impact his performance in the numberFire metrics?

If you have read a numberFire article before, you know about Net Expected Points (NEP). If you haven’t, this is a measure of a player’s performance as it specifically relates to his team’s probability of scoring on any given drive. You can read more about NEP in our glossary. What we’re interested in for Le’Veon Bell are his Rushing NEP and Reception NEP, which are points accumulated on only rushing attempts and receptions respectively.

Last year, Bell tallied a -13.85 Rushing NEP (the negative is somewhat misleading; this ranked 25th among the 35 running backs with at least 150 rushes), and 27.86 Reception NEP (8th among backs with at least 150 rushes). Simply put, it’s easier to accumulate positive yardage in chunks via the air, so Bell’s Reception NEP is higher than his Rushing NEP by a large margin. Still, this isn’t so misleading, as Bell’s Rushing Success Rate (the percentage of runs that contributed positively toward his NEP) ranked a still-paltry 22nd among all rushers in this study. It may be possible to chalk up some of Bell’s struggles on the ground to the Steelers’ poor offensive line play in 2013, but with a 39.75% Rush Success Rate, some of it has to be attributed to the player himself.

The upshot to this is that Bell has the capability to be a proficient three-down back, having alleviated enough concerns about his play in the passing game to be targeted 66 times. Where we must be concerned about his ability is one place that was brought up before the draft and is clearly still a problem: he doesn't get the short, crucial yardage by using his size.

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Thus, the acquisition of LeGarrette Blount makes perfect sense. Blount is known as a bruising early-down back, and in fact, he had the top Rush Success Rate among all running backs with 150 or more carries in 2013. If Bell can't handle pushing the pile, he will have “Blount Force Trauma” to push him. Based on his physical skills, Bell has the profile to be a complete back and one of the last remaining bell cows in the league. He just has to learn how to be more of a traditional Steelers runner - a power back - as well as a solid receiver.

He’s on a great team to make it happen, too. The Steelers have long committed to a strong running game, and since 2000 have only had a pass-to-rush ratio above 1.25:1 four times. Also, the addition of offensive line guru Mike Munchak to the Steelers coaching staff should ensure that the Pittsburgh big uglies drastically improve in 2013. If anything about this situation getsbetter, Le’Veon Bell should keep his feature role as a true lead back, and even improve with his natural progression in his sophomore season. I’d put a ring on that.