Le'Veon Bell Is the Best Running Back in the NFL, and It's Not Really Close
Running back is becoming a very difficult position to evaluate in the NFL, as teams lean more heavily on the passing game due to rule changes and as running backs prove to be more fragile and less dependable now that they're facing some of the most athletic defenders in the history of sports in general.
This is why the emergence of a star back from the otherwise disappointing 2013 NFL Draft class is pretty surprising. A draft once thought to lack in star power has now produced one of the most productive backs in the history of the NFL: Le'Veon Bell.
That may seem like hyperbole or click-bait, but it's true. Let's dig into the number to see just how incredible Bell's production has so far in his brief NFL career.
The Victory Bell
No running back has been more productive in 2014 than Le'Veon Bell, and quite frankly, it's not even close. Using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can evaluate how Bell stacks up to other top backs and see that he blows away the competition in every measurable we offer.
|Name||Att||Rush NEP||SR%||Rec||Rec NEP||Rec SR%||Total NEP|
Among backs with 75 or more carries this year, Bell ranks third in Rushing NEP, fourth in Success Rate as a runner, and first in Reception NEP, leading to a commanding lead in Total NEP (which combines Rushing, Receiving, and Passing NEP into one summary of the player's production). Even when we consider these players on a per-touch basis, Bell ranks second behind only C.J. Anderson, who is operating on a much smaller sample size after taking over mid-season in Denver.
He's been the leading fantasy point producer in PPR leagues this season and is mere points behind DeMarco Murray in standard scoring leagues. And he's posted these points with a high level of consistency, finishing in the top-16 among running backs every week in PPR formats, with five top-two performances.
When considering overall production from both a real and fantasy perspective, there's really no argument that Bell is the best back in the NFL in 2014. He's more efficient and productive than Murray thanks to his advantage as a receiver, and he's performed at a high level over a bigger volume of touches than Jamaal Charles or C.J. Anderson.
So let's take it one step further. Where does Bell's impressive season rank all-time among running backs?
Better With Age
Since 1920, there have been only 13 backs to run the ball 300 times and catch 100 passes in their first two seasons. Bell has reached that milestone with a few games to spare - despite missing a couple of contests along the way as well. Here's the full list of players to accomplish this feat, along with some relevant statistics.
When we take away the qualifiers, and just consider the best fantasy point production for any back over the first two seasons of his career, Bell is on pace to finish 14th all-time in standard scoring, right behing Adrian Peterson and Terrell Davis, and ahead of such names as Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith and Marcus Allen. He'd be even higher in PPR scoring, vaulting up to seventh in the history of the league in fantasy point production over a player's first two years.
To further add to Bell's accomplishments, he's done all of this heavy lifting for the Steelers offense with only one fumble in his career. Every other player with at least 300 carries and 100 receptions had at least four fumbles over their first two seasons, with several of the players dropping the ball 10 or more times.
And from a "real football" perspective, Bell's 2014 campaign stands out as one of the best in recent history. Here's how the Steelers back's ridiculous performance translates into Net Expected Points, and how it compares to other top backs since 2000.
|Year||Name||Att||Rush NEP||Rec||Rec NEP||Total NEP||Total NEP/Touch|
Bell's 2014 statistics are virtually on pace to match those of Marshall Faulk from 2001, a season when Faulk was named Offensive Player of the Year and the Pro Football Writer's MVP, losing the AP MVP honors to his teammate Kurt Warner by just a handful of votes. And while the Steelers aren't quite as impressive of a team as the 2001 Rams, their running back is performing at the same high level as Faulk and deserves more recognition than he's currently receiving.
Le'Veon Bell is the best running back in the NFL, and at only 22 years old, he still has some time left before he begins the decline most running backs experience as volume and age chip away at their productivity. He should be seen as the top running back in dynasty leagues and the number one overall pick in redraft fantasy leagues next season, barring any unfortunate injuries or off-the-field issues. His production is on an elite level in only his second season in the NFL, and his fantasy value is bolstered by his consistency and his involvement in the passing game.
It might not be easy to evaluate running back talent in the NFL, but Le'Veon Bell has made it simple to determine where he stands at the position. He's the best running back in the league and appears to be trending up with some prime athletic years ahead of him.