Are Both Joique Bell and Reggie Bush Fantasy Football Values?

The Detroit Lions need to balance out their offense to improve in 2014. That means finding the right mix of their two talented backs.

The Detroit Lions finished 2013 with an offense that had a lot more bark than bite. Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell were on the radar of every fantasy football player in the world, but the offensive efficiency was lacking in Detroit, and it kept them out of the playoffs in a crazy finish to the 2013 NFC North season.

As I noted in a recent article about the value of the incompletion, the Lions were one of the few teams in the NFL that hurt their offensive efficiency by force-feeding their best receiver. The man known as Megatron is an incredible talent, but on an offense with plenty of talent (including new additions Golden Tate and Eric Ebron), the Lions will have to spread the ball around more than they did in 2013 to succeed.

This means more of a balance at running back, where, according to numberFire's metrics, the Detroit offense may have been featuring the wrong player. Let's take a quick look at the rankings from last year for Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.

(The following chart considers the rankings of these players among backs with between 150-250 carries. This means not-quite-workhorse guys who still get more than 10 touches per game.)

StatisticBell RankingBush Ranking
Rushing NEP7th18th
Rushing NEP per Rush7th15th
Success Rate7th11th

Among the qualified group of 25 backs considered, Bell ranked a consistent seventh in each of the three Net Expected Points (NEP) related metrics considered. These statistics are both counting and rate based, so it's interesting to see that when considering overall production or per-play production, Bell is still among the best compared to his peers.

Bush, on the other hand, showed the ill-effects of a higher workload. He finished near the bottom in overall production, but fared a bit better when considering per-play data. Still, he finished in the lower half of this set of running backs in Net Expected Points, meaning he was a below average rushing threat among players with a similar workload.

But both players fared pretty well in Success Rate, which determines how often a player gains positive NEP for his team when he carries the ball. The Lions could count on Bell and Bush to gain expected points on handoffs, although Bell was both more productive and more consistent than Bush.

The story is quite different, especially for Bush, when we consider the passing game.

StatisticBell RankingBush Ranking
Reception NEP3rd2nd
Target NEP2nd4th

Among the same group of mid-tier backs (in terms of usage), the Lions' tandem finished in the top four in both of the major production statistics we track at numberFire. Reception NEP is the total NEP gained on catches, while Target NEP is the NEP gained on every pass thrown at the player.

The important thing to note here is that Bell is on par with Bush, who is usually perceived as the ideal pass-catching back. In fact, on a per-target basis, Bell earned more Reception NEP per look than Bush did. So Bell is a more efficient runner, and an equal at receiver, so he should get the lion's share of touches in the Detroit backfield, right?

Not exactly. in an article on Andre Ellington, the top backs in the league using NEP data aren't the ones with 350 touches, but rather the backs who gain big chunks of yards on the ground and through the air in important situations. Volume is the enemy of efficiency, both through the air and especially on the ground. So for the Lions to be at their best, neither back should be pushing for 350 or more touches, but rather splitting them evenly and keeping defenses off balance. Ultimately, neither back in Detroit is an elite playmaker at the position like LeSean McCoy or Jamaal Charles, so it would be foolish to give either player that sort of work.

So while the Lions should (and probably will) give Bell even more opportunities on the ground in 2014, he was in an ideal situation to make big plays in key moments as the change-of-pace from Reggie Bush last year. Changing his role too much may lead to disappointment, so if you're banking on a big year from Bell, do so with the hope and expectation that he remains a part of a two-headed monster in Detroit, rather than taking over as the lead dog.

For fantasy purposes, both of these backs are still relevant and very draftable. Both of these players are great value picks at their current average draft positions in the third (Bush) and sixth (Bell) round (according to Fantasy Football Calculator). Bell in particular is being drafted as an RB3/Flex at RB28, despite finishing much higher than that in 2013 and figuring to get even more looks in the upcoming season. If you're in a PPR league, the duo in Detroit become even more appealing.

The Lions have lessons to learn after a failed 2013 campaign that saw their high-octane offense finish in the middle of the pack in efficiency. Getting their backs more involved, and balancing the workload between them, should be a major part of the plan to use their incredible offensive arsenal to contend in the NFC North in 2014.