Le’Veon Bell Will Be an Elite Fantasy Football Asset With the Jets
Bell refused to play on a franchise tag from the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, electing to forgo a year of play (and pay) in order to secure a more stable long-term deal, avoiding any of the injury risk that would have come with playing out a one-year deal in 2018.
Whatever your views on how smart that decision was, or your thoughts on how much he could have made if he had played last year, he got himself paid. The deal is worth a reported $52.5 million over 4 years, and it comes with $35 million in guaranteed money. Per Spotrac, that is the second-most guaranteed money for any running back in the NFL, behind only Todd Gurley.
Settling into his new digs for the long haul, we can expect Bell to immediately bounce back as one of the league's most productive running backs, from both a real-world and fantasy perspective.
Volume Is What Matters
Could taking a year off leave Bell rusty? Could he be less effective than the last time we saw him on the field? Absolutely. But that also probably doesn't matter much.
If you're trying to find production at the running back position, you want to look for volume and not much else.
If you look at the 17 running back stats analyzed by 4for4's TJ Hernandez, yards per carry comes out with the second-lowest correlation year-to-year. That means a running back's yards per carry in the past -- with a correlation of 0.04 -- have almost zero predictive ability for determining how well he will produce in that area in the future. Rush attempts per game, though, are the most highly-correlated of the stats Hernandez looked at, with a correlation of 0.60. That helps explain why rushing yards per game correlates strongly (0.58) despite the per-carry yardage meaning nothing.
A back doesn't need to be efficient to post elite yardage numbers, either, as three of the last five single-season rushing leaders have failed to crack the top 10 in yards per carry.
Le'Veon Bell Will Get Plenty of Volume
So the question, then, becomes whether Bell will see enough volume to return to his position as one of the league's most productive backs, and all the signs point to him doing exactly that.
First is that contract. The Jets are not playing around, and teams just don't spend that kind of money at the position without being ready to focus their offense on using their running back. The other five backs with the highest guaranteed money on their contracts, again per Spotrac, are Gurley, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley and Leonard Fournette. Excepting Fournette, who was limited to eight games thanks to injury woes in 2018, everyone in that group saw at least 330 opportunities (rush attempts plus targets) last year.
That's a mark that only five backs hit in 2018 overall, meaning running backs with top guaranteed money saw four of the five biggest workloads at the position. The group was also typically utilized heavily in both the rushing and passing game, which makes sense if you're going to pay a running back big bucks in a league that is trending heavily to favor the pass. Three of the five saw at least 15.0% of their team's targets in the passing game, a mark that only 10 backs eclipsed last season. Of that 10, only four did it while also notching at least 200 carries, and three of the four belonged to that high-money group (Elliott, Barkley and Johnson).
We've seen that Bell is more than capable of handling an elite workload in the past, having notched 355 opportunities in only 12 games in 2016, as well as 427 in 15 games in 2017.
The Jets' coaching staff is also no stranger to getting their running backs involved in the passing game, either. Head coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains have both come over from the Miami Dolphins, where running back Kenyan Drake finished second on the team in targets (with a 16.8% market share) in 2018. Loggains was also the offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears in 2017 when Tarik Cohen finished second on the team with a 15.2% target market share.
That passing game involvement can help insulate Bell's workload even if the Jets have a bad season, which would usually mean a team gets away from the run as they play from behind. Neither the Jets nor the combination of Gase and Loggains in Miami really followed that typical path last year, though.
The Jets' average scoring margin in their games was -6.8 -- the fourth-worst mark in the NFL. Despite that, they finished as the 13th-most run-heavy team, if we look at pass-to-run ratio. The 'Phins were even worse, finishing just behind the Jets with a -7.1-point average scoring margin, but finished one spot more run-heavy than the Jets.
So while some defensive improvements through free agency and the potential development of now-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold could help the Jets stay competitive more often this season, that's not actually especially vital for Bell's volume.
Where Does That Put Him for 2019?
Those high-money, high-volume backs put up terrific fantasy numbers last year. Again, excluding Fournette, we didn't see any finish outside of the top nine in PPR scoring formats, with three finishing in the top five.
The last three seasons have given us 24 instances of running backs finishing with at least 300 opportunities. Only 1 of those 24 running backs finished outside the top 15 for fantasy scoring at the position, while 19 of them finished 9th or better. The average fantasy finish for a 300-opportunity back in that time was 6.6, and the median was 5.5.
Getting 300 opportunities is likely closer to Bell's floor than to a median projection, considering the work he has seen in the past, the size of his contract and the 363 averaged by the other four high-guaranteed money backs last year. So, even if we ascribe wholly average (or better yet, unpredictable) efficiency to Bell, he should finish among the elite fantasy producers at the position.
Early Average Draft Position (ADP) data had Bell going as the eighth running back off the board. Expect that to change quickly with his new landing spot -- and if it doesn't change, be prepared to take advantage.