Le'Veon Bell Has More Fantasy Football Upside Than You Think
Le'Veon Bell became the highest-paid running back in the league when he signed with the New York Jets ahead of the 2019 season. Gang Green wasn't shy about using their new toy as Bell received a whopping 311 total touches last year, the eighth-most among all running backs.
In fantasy football, high-volume running backs like Bell are usually very early picks, but that's not the case for the Jets' back as Bell is sporting only a fourth-round ADP, according to BestBall10s.
One of the main reasons Bell isn't super highly valued heading into 2020 despite being expected to once again see a workhorse role is what he did -- or didn't do -- with all those touches a campaign ago. Despite the volume, Bell lacked weekly upside, finishing as a top-10 back just six times a season ago. In half-PPR scoring, Bell topped 16 points in a game just three times and had a single-game high of 20.2 points -- leaving fantasy managers wanting more after spending a first-round pick to land Bell.
Is there is room for hope heading into the 2020 season? Let's take a look.
Bell Is Due for a Step Up in Efficiency
Since the year 2000, there have been 206 running backs with at least 300 touches in a season. In his 300-touch season in 2019, Bell had only 789 total yards, which sits dead last among all of the 206 300-touch campaigns. Only nine running backs had fewer than 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards when they had over 300 touches in a season. A low-yarage season as extreme as Bell's 2019 should not repeat itself if Bell gets 300 touches once more.
Not only was Bell's total yardage historically bad, his other efficiency metrics were unsustainably poor, as well. His 3.22 yards per carry ranked fourth-worst of that same group. The six running backs to rank in the bottom six along with Bell increased their yards per carry by an average 0.4 yards the following season.
Prior to last season, Bell's average yards per carry was 4.4 across five seasons.
It's not like Bell was the only bad back on last year's Jets team, either. The Jets as a team had a yards per rush of 3.3. Only five teams over the past four years have posted a worse team yards-per-carry clip. Each of those other teams improved in their rushing efficiency in the following season.
Touchdowns Should Be Coming
Touchdown regression has become a common term in the fantasy football industry. Based on a running back's rushing yardage or attempts, we can figure out how many touchdowns they should have scored based on the touchdown totals of other players with similar yardage or carry totals.
I collected the carry totals for every running back over the past three years as well as their respective rushing touchdown totals. Using regression analysis, we can then plot carry totals versus touchdown totals to get a trendline and equation that tells us how many touchdown we could expect a player to score based on how many carries they have.
Once we have an expected touchdown total, we can take a look at the difference between how many touchdowns they were expected to score versus how many they actually scored during the season. If their expected touchdown total was much higher than their actual touchdown total we can say they got unlucky in the touchdown department. Moving forward if that player receives a similar amount of carries in a future season, we should expect touchdown luck to bounce their way and therefore score more touchdowns closer to the expected touchdown total.
Here are the 10 rushers from the past three seasons who had the biggest difference in expected touchdowns based on their carry total and their actual rushing touchdowns scored.
You can see Bell should have rushed for four more touchdowns last year, which would have made him the half-PPR RB15.
If we do the same exercise but with rushing yardage instead of total carries, Bell ranks 22nd among backs who should have scored more touchdowns last season. We already identified that Bell is due for regression in his rushing yardage efficiency, which could further propel his touchdown totals.
Granted the Jets don't exactly fit the profile of a high-scoring offense, but the team as a whole is due for more rushing touchdowns. The Jets scored six total rushing touchdowns in 2019. They should have scored eight based on the team's total rushing yardage. That would rank 22nd among every team over the past three seasons in the difference of expected touchdowns and actual touchdowns.
Not only should they have scored more rushing touchdowns, but they also should run the ball more in the red zone. The Jets ranked first in pass rate in the red zone at 66%, according to SharpFootballStats. That is three percentage points higher than the next closet team, the Atlanta Falcons. In both 2018 and 2017, the Jets' pass rate in the red zone was 53%.
Bell had only 20 red zone carries, including six totes inside the five carries, and those numbers should rise in 2020.
And there's a chance the Jets' offense is just better all around in 2020, which would be a big boost for Bell on all fronts. The Jets made improving their offensive line a priority this offseason, signing center Connor McGovern and drafting tackle Mekhi Becton in the first round. Sam Darnold is healthy, too, and could take a step forward in Year 3.
Bell Deserves Some Blame
Looking at our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Bell accounted for -30.50 Rushing NEP.
That's bad -- really bad.
To put it in context, only 44 backs since the year 2000 had a worse single-season Rushing NEP total than Bell's 2019 clip. Bell had never been close to that bad. Prior to last year, Bell's worst Rushing NEP total came back in 2013, when he finished with -13.85.
But, as we mentioned earlier, the rushing woes were a team-wide issue for New York, which is better for Bell's future outlook than if others had thrived while he ran it poorly.
Bell finished with -0.12 Rushing NEP per carry on 246 attempts. Bilal Powell had -0.10 Rushing NEP per carry on 60 rushes while Ty Montgomery totaled -0.18 Rushing NEP per carry on 32 attempts. No other Jets back had more than 10 carries
2020 Outlook and Projection
Bell has a few things going for him in 2020. He's due for positive regression in both the efficiency department and scoring department, and he should once again be in line for big volume. Oh, and he's not too expensive.
We currently have Bell projected for 995 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 294 receiving yards, and 7.74 total touchdowns. He's our half-PPR RB17, which looks pretty nice when compared to his ADP rank of RB21.
Bell can be had for a bit of a value and should have a better weekly ceiling than he showed in 2019. Touchdowns are what give a player upside, and Bell and the Jets are due for some regression in that area. He may not become a top-five fantasy running back, but Bell certainly could jump into the top 10 if touchdown luck falls his way. He is a safe pick in the fourth round and a steal any later than that.