Is Le’Veon Bell Worthy of an Early First Round Pick?

Is Le’Veon Bell Worthy of an Early First Round Pick?

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor), on Jun 5, 2015

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LeVeon Bell (we remove the apostrophe for hyperlink reasons) is currently the first running back off the board in MyFantasyLeague PPR drafts, and is second overall in Fantasy Football Calculator’s PPR mock drafts. He’s going 5th in Yahoo standard drafts.

Normally, we wouldn’t fret about taking Bell this early. Last season, he was the #1 running back in PPR formats (23.2 PPG) and #2 in standard leagues (18.0 PPG). Save for his three-game suspension, his situation is pretty much the same. Sure, the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams, but he isn’t expected to put a significant dent in Bell’s touches.

DeMarco Murray and Matt Forte, coming off of huge 2014 seasons, and Bell’s primary competition for the top spot in PPR formats, have experienced system and/or workload downgrades this offseason. Murray should post nice numbers in Philadelphia, but he’s not going to approach the 450 touches he racked up in 2014 now that he’s sharing a backfield with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. As for Forte, he’s no longer playing for Marc Trestman, so his days of catching 100-plus passes are probably over.

Now that Adrian Peterson has reported to camp, he's a threat to finish with the top PPG in PPR formats, especially since his usage in the passing game should increase under OC Norv Turner. Jamaal Charles is always a threat to finish as the top back, but he only caught 40 passes in 2014 after posting 70 catches the year before. What gives, Andy Reid?

On a per game basis, the choice is clear in PPR formats: LeVeon Bell. If it weren’t for that damn suspension…


What’s the real impact of the suspension?

There has been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about how Bell’s suspension doesn’t torpedo his value. Owners can use their RB3 or draft Williams as Bell’s handcuff and “get by” during the first three weeks. After all, fantasy championships aren’t won in September, right?

Right, but keep these things in mind when drafting Bell:

1. Owners will be without their best fantasy asset during the three weeks when their opponents will be at full strength. There are no byes in the first three weeks and since it’s so early in the season, it’s unlikely owners will benefit from an injury on their opponent’s roster. The fact that there are no byes does mean that Bell owners should have a solid option on their roster.

2. Starting the season 0-3 or 1-2 makes it less likely that Bell owners make the fantasy playoffs. If Bell returns and performs as expected, it’s likely owners will be able to string together enough wins to make the postseason, but if I’m playing in a league that only takes four teams to the playoffs, I’d have serious reservations about using an early pick on a player who is going to miss the first three games of the season.


Is the benefit worth the cost?

We currently have Bell projected to score 270 fantasy points (PPR) in 13 games, which works out to 20.8 PPG. Compare that to the average of the 11 other running backs in our top 12: 15.3 PPG. So Bell gives owners a 5.5 PPG advantage over the average fantasy RB1 in a 12-team league. That’s significant.

However, as much as we’d like them to be, our projections are not infallible. Injuries happen, and players often regress after an extraordinary season. The following table shows how the last 15 running backs selected first (in PPR formats) have finished.


Actual Production of #1 RB Taken
Year #1 RB (ADP) Avg Pick PPG Finish
2014 LeSean McCoy 2.35 13.0 12
2013 Adrian Peterson 1.42 17.0 10
2012 Arian Foster 1.96 19.1 3
2011 Adrian Peterson 2.06 17.3 15
2010 Chris Johnson 1.35 17.3 6
2009 Adrian Peterson 1.39 20.8 2
2008 Ladainian Tomlinson 1.52 17.4 6
2007 Ladainian Tomlinson 1.62 23.0 2
2006 Ladainian Tomlinson 2.37 30.2 1
2005 Ladainian Tomlinson 2.05 23.7 2
2004 Priest Holmes 1.79 27.1 18
2003 LaDainian Tomlinson 2.10 27.8 2
2002 Marshall Faulk 1.82 20.6 10
2001 Edgerrin James 1.72 21.3 34
2000 Edgerrin James 1.46 25.1 2
  Average 1.80 21.4 8.3
  Average w/o LT 1.73 19.9 11.2

Over the past 15 years, a running back drafted first overall has had an average finish of 8.3 among running backs. If we remove Ladainian Tomlinson (who we can all agree was money), the average jumps to 11.2.

The top running back gave owners a top 6 (i.e. Elite RB1) season 60% of the time. This means that nearly half the time, the #1 pick didn’t even offer an advantage over half of the other end-of-season RB1s in the league.

Is it worth sacrificing 1-3 games early in the season to gain an advantage that may not even be there when Bell returns?

Going a step further, here is how each of the top five drafted running backs have finished the season:

Production by RB Rank (ADP)
Year 1 2 3 4 5
2014 12 7 127 3 6
2013 10 56 47 1 27
2012 3 4 16 12 25
2011 15 3 1 102 9
2010 6 5 7 13 16
2009 2 4 12 34 24
2008 6 9 8 39 15
2007 2 15 36 7 4
2006 1 3 33 6 2
2005 2 1 5 31 55
2004 18 2 11 17 9
2003 2 9 6 1 16
2002 10 11 6 3 1
2001 34 1 113 20 13
2000 2 1 3 12 72
Average 8.3 8.7 28.7 20.1 19.6
Top 6 60% 60% 33% 33% 27%
Top 12 80% 87% 60% 53% 40%

Notice that the #2 pick offered a similar average finish (8.7), the same percentage of top 6 finishes (60%) and a higher number of top 12 finishes (87%). According to these numbers, owners determined to draft a running back in the first round may be better off going with Eddie Lacy, who is currently the second running back off the board over at MyFantasyLeague. Adrian Peterson might make a push for the #2 spot, now that he’s reported to the Vikings. (I realize I’m not helping.)

There’s also the matter of RB/WR dependability in the first round, but that’s another story.


If I do draft Bell, how do I protect myself during his suspension?

DeAngelo Williams is the first name that springs to mind. The Steelers signed him this offseason to shore up the running game behind Bell, likely with the suspension in mind.

Williams is 32-years-old and is coming off an injury-plagued season (263 total yards on 67 touches) where he broke a finger and never really looked like himself. However, he has a career 4.8 YPC and is a very capable receiver, though the Panthers didn’t use him much in the passing game. He has a 72.7% career catch percentage and his 9.1 yards per reception is 12th out of 90 running backs with at least 170 catches and 1,000 carries since 1980.

Over the past three seasons, Williams has averaged 0.79 fantasy points per touch (PPR). Bell saw 23.3 touches in 2014, so if Williams sees 60-75% of that work (14.0 to 17.5 touches) in the first three games, he should provide 11.1 to 13.8 FP per game. When compared to 2014 totals, those averages would have put him in the #10 to #20 range, so owners can reasonably expect fantasy RB2-type numbers for the first three weeks.

The naysayers will point out Williams’ 2014 YPC (3.5), but he never really got going last season. I think with a steady diet of touches, he can provide 4.0-4.2 YPC (a shade below his 2012-13 averages) since he should be healthy to start the season. (Williams’ early strength of schedule is not bad, per our numbers, though that Week 3 matchup against the Rams is not appealing.)

He’s currently going in the 10th-16th round, depending on which ADP we use, so he’s a fairly cheap stopgap option.

Of course, owners who draft Bell will have other running backs on their roster, and it’s certainly possible they’ll have a better option than Williams during the first three weeks. Unless an owner goes RB-heavy early in the draft, a typical RB3 will be a risky play to begin the season.


Bottom Line

In PPR formats, I’ll typically be selecting a receiver in the first round, so I’ll be shying away from Bell in most of my drafts. He becomes a value pick at some point, and I would pull the trigger somewhere in the back half of the 1st round. He becomes a better option in standard leagues where running backs are at a higher premium, though his pass-catching ability doesn’t help him as much in that format. At this point, I'd take him 5th overall in standard leagues.

Word of warning: I’d be very wary about taking him in a league that only lets four teams into the fantasy playoffs since it’s tough enough to make the postseason in that format with a full roster.

For owners determined to draft a running back in the first round, drafting Bell and Williams is a solid plan. Williams should give owners enough production in the first three weeks to be competitive. Owners will want to secure a RB3 who can produce (LeGarrette Blount?) in the middle rounds in the event Williams falls on his face.


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