Le'Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard: A Historical Perspective

Le'Veon Bell and Gio Bernard joined elite company following their rookie seasons. Can the past tell us something about their futures?

Both Le’Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard had relatively historic rookie seasons in 2013. And while many are expecting a second-year leap for both players, history tells us that perhaps we should pump the brakes a bit.

According to Pro Football Reference’s season finder, since 2000, only six other running backs have finished their respective rookie seasons with at least 170 carries, 45 receptions, 1,200 total yards, and 8 total touchdowns.

Though there are some forgettable names on that list, the remaining group is nothing short of impressive.

While box scores can be useful, we here at numberFire like to dig deeper. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric is a measure of how a player influences his team’s final score depending on how he performs in real-game situations. For example, a seven-yard gain on 3rd-and-7 is much more valuable than a seven-yard gain on 3rd-and-8.

The table below shows Year 1 and Year 2 Rushing NEP and Reception NEP results - the number of points added by a player on the ground and through the air - for the other six running backs who met the requirements mentioned above, as well as their respective ranks among players with similar volume. This information gives us historical perspective and possibly a preview for what we can expect from Bell and Bernard in 2014.

Player (Year)Rushing NEPRushing NEP per AttemptRec. NEPPer Target
Doug Martin (2012)10.18 (7th)0.03 (8th)25.92 (4th)0.37 (5th)
Doug Martin (2013)-12.64 (17th)-0.10 (19th)-0.12 (26th)-0.01 (26th)
Trent Richardson (2012)-17.80 (19th)-0.07 (18th)24.61 (5th)0.35 (6th)
Trent Richardson (2013)-27.14 (33rd)-0.14 (23rd)20.23 (4th)0.39 (5th)
Matt Forte (2008)-18.28 (20th)-0.06 (18th)25.97 (1st)0.49 (2nd)
Matt Forte (2009)-31.42 (22nd)-0.12 (22nd)18.37 (11th)0.26 (6th)
Steve Slaton (2008)12.42 (3rd)0.05 (3rd)4.14 (16th)-3.18 (16th)
Steve Slaton (2009)-26.80 (27th)-0.20 (26th)31.20 (4th)0.57 (4th)
Domanick Davis (2003)-6.47 (15th)-0.03 (16th)13.04 (12th)0.19 (13th)
Domanick Davis (2004)-12.59 (13th)-0.04 (13th)26.29 (4th)0.31 (4th)
LaDainian Tomlinson (2001)-39.08 (19th)-0.12 (16th)6.10 (12th)0.08 (13th)
LaDainian Tomlinson (2002)11.59 (3rd)0.03 (5th)17.45 (10th)0.17 (11th)

Best-Case Scenario

Running backs like LaDainian Tomlinson only come along every so often, so it's no surprise that he would be the "best-case scenario." His stats are eye-popping, including eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. In 2001, Tomlinson’s -39.08 Rushing NEP ranked eighth out of 10 running backs with 300 or more carries. In 2002, his 11.59 Rushing NEP ranked second among nine running backs with 300-plus carries; a marked improvement.

LT’s 0.08 Reception NEP per target in his rookie season ranked last among running back with 50 or more catches. In 2002, Tomlinson’s 0.17 Reception NEP per target ranked 11th out of 12 running backs with similar usage. Tomlinson didn't post a truly efficient receiving season until 2006 with a Reception NEP per target of 0.50

Domanick Davis is worth mentioning here because he was the only other player that improved in all areas in Year 2. While this is certainly impressive, Davis's short three-year career is his only real shortcoming.

Worst-Case Scenario

Doug Martin missed 10 games in 2013, which limited him to 139 touches - down from 368 the prior season. His inclusion in the "worst case" category can partially be blamed on his malady. Regardless, Martin’s Rushing NEP decreased drastically from his sterling rookie campaign despite lower volume.

Martin’s Reception NEP per target also bottomed out. This is noteworthy because it can't simply be explained by his lack of opportunity. His Reception NEP per target was around the same area, meaning he was simply not as good catching the football. If Martin can stay healthy in 2014, it's possible he rebounds from his second-year slump, but it is something worth monitoring.

Steve Slaton's Rushing NEP is also worth a mention here. While he did become much more efficient catching the football, he turned into a liability for Houston when he took hand-offs. Similar to Davis, Slaton only played four NFL seasons, failing to regain relevance following his rookie year.

What It All Means

While past results certainly can't predict future events with 100% accuracy, we can, from time to time, access clues about the future from delving into what has already occurred. So what can we take away from this metric-driven analysis?

Bernard has the higher level of competition for carries, namely from incoming rookie Jeremy Hill. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis seemingly on his way out, Bernard could cede short-yardage work to the 235-pound Hill.

Bell’s main competition will come from newly-signed LeGarrette Blount. While a similar situation could play itself out regarding short-yardage work in Pittsburgh, Blount hasn't proven his ability to catch passes, which should keep him off the field in certain situations – particularly if the Steelers do indeed run more no-huddle.

According to numberFire's Fantasy Football Rankings, we have Le’Veon Bell as the RB6, while Gio Bernard comes in at RB11. According to Fantasy Football Calculator average draft position data, in PPR leagues, Bell and Bernard are being drafted as the RB10 and RB11 respectively.

It appears, as of right now, that Bell provides to the better fantasy option due to his well-rounded game and lower level of competition for touches. And while both Bell and Bernard could end up as viable fantasy options in 2014, history tells us that running backs who flourish in their rookie seasons aren't necessarily guaranteed to improve exponentially in Year 2. My recommendation: temper expectations.