leveonbell

There is a running back, incredibly similar to Doug Martin, with essentially no competition in his own backfield, being drafted in the late 3rd round of redraft leagues. Le’Veon Bell is clearly the starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers and is being massively underestimated by the fantasy community. While the early love was for Montee Ball and there is growing sentiment for Giovani Bernard, Bell is the clear candidate to finish as the #1 rookie runner.

Before the Steelers had even selected Bell with the 48th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Shawn Siegele comped Bell to Doug Martin with this table:

PlayerCollegeCollege YardsCollege YPCCollege TDCollege RecWeight (lbs)40 YardSpeed ScoreAgility Score
Le’Veon BellMichigan State33465.033782304.6102.710.99
PlayerCollegeCollege YardsCollege YPCCollege TDCollege RecWeight (lbs)40 YardSpeed ScoreAgility Score
Doug MartinBoise State34315.643672234.55104.110.95
DeShaun FosterUCLA30494.439572224.57101.810.98
Delone CarterSyracuse31044.824282224.54104.510.99
Stevan RidleyLouisiana State14194.619172254.6596.210.99
Joique BellWayne State (MI)NANANANA2204.6891.711.01

Shawn summarized his findings by stating “If you were to make Le’Veon Bell the average of these backs, he’d probably be worth a mid-round pick in the NFL Draft and a late first round dynasty selection. However, his passing game usage suggests Doug Martin and DeShaun Foster as the closest comps. Considering where those guys were taken in their respective drafts, Bell is poised to be a steal in both reality and fantasy.” As per usual, Siegele seems like some sort of fantasy football soothsayer extraordinaire (Shawn backed up his prediction by selecting Bell #1 overall in the Rotoviz Dynasty League rookie draft).

It wasn’t just Shawn that noticed Bell, however. The Fantasy Douche found in his Agility Index that Bell was the 3rd most impressive physical specimen in the 2013 rookie running back class. The 10.99 agility score from someone as big as Bell was as en early indicator that he was something special and the Steelers realized that. As a staff, we ranked Bell at 4th overall among running backs in the 2013 NFL Draft, but that ranking was brought down by my own 11th overall ranking of Bell that was just dead wrong. Based on physical ability and production, my pre-draft rank was wrong, and given his fit with the Steelers, that ranking is now hilariously incorrect. Feel free to mock, friends.

Despite poor offensive line play, the Steelers are an ideal landing spot for Bell because of the competition. Running back production for fantasy purposes is mostly about opportunity, and even if Bell is inefficient on a per touch basis, he is going to get the volume needed to be successful, both as a receiver and a runner. Bell had 67 receptions his final 2 years at Michigan State and according to ace Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette, has been holding his own as a pass blocker in training camp. Therefore, he isn’t going to have to come off the field on third downs, increasing his Doug Martin comps. Issac Redman has proven himself to be nothing but a spell back, and certainly someone that the Steelers coaching staff can’t trust. Dwyer is a worse version of Bell.

PlayerCollege YardsCollege YPCCollege TDCollege RecWeight (lbs)40 YardSpeed ScoreAgility Score
Jon Dwyer32266.235152294.6498.812.23

Many of the measurables are the same, except for Speed and Agility score. That Agility Score is so bad, it’s unclear how Dwyer is even in contention with Bell for first team carries at all. The Steelers literally just drafted a better, more athletic version of him. Clearly, by spending an early 2nd round selection on a team that could have used help elsewhere, the coaching staff realizes Bell’s talent and plans to use it. Given that Bell has a very clear path to starting, it’s easy to see him outperforming his current ADP; therefore it’s worthwhile to see what rookie runners of a similar size have done since the year 2000 to get an idea of production. The following table is rookie running backs weighing less than 238 pounds, more than 225 pounds and taller than 72 inches, but shorter or equal to 74 inches.

Ht & WtRushing
RkPlayerYearDraftHtWtAttYdsY/ATD
1Mike Anderson20006-1896-023029714875.0115
2Anthony Thomas20012-386-222827811834.267
3Kevin Jones20041-306-022824111334.705
4Willis McGahee20041-236-022828411283.9713
5Ronnie Brown20051-26-02332079074.384
6Chris Wells20091-316-12351767934.517
7Shawn Bryson20003-866-12281615913.670
8Daniel Thomas20112-626-02301655813.520
9Jason Brookins20016-02351515513.655
10Kevan Barlow20013-806-12381255124.104
11Tim Hightower20085-1496-02261433992.7910
12Toby Gerhart20102-516-0234813223.981
13Brian Leonard20072-526-2226863033.520
14Montario Hardesty20112-596-0225882663.020
15Arian Foster20096-0232542574.763
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/7/2013.

This is the same table, but generated for receiving stats:

Ht & WtReceiving
RkPlayerDraftHtWtRecYdsY/RTD
1Tim Hightower5-1496-0226342376.970
2Ronnie Brown1-26-0233322327.251
3Shawn Bryson3-866-1228322718.472
4Lamar Gordon3-846-1228302789.272
5Brian Leonard2-526-2226301836.100
6Kevin Jones1-306-0228281806.431
7Mike Anderson6-1896-0230231697.350
8Kevan Barlow3-806-12382224711.231
9Willis McGahee1-236-0228221697.680
10Anthony Thomas2-386-2228221788.090
11Toby Gerhart2-516-0234211677.950
12Troy Fleming6-1916-2230191648.632
13Rashad Jennings7-2506-1234161016.310
14Deuce McAllister1-236-12321516611.071
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/7/2013.

Looking at the tables one thing becomes clear: the players who had competition weren’t fantasy stars. Those who were given a clear shot at the job and given starter’s touches did well, or even exceeded expectations. The Steelers offense clearly isn’t anything close the ZBS-dynasty of the Shanahan-Era Denver Bronco’s that Mike Anderson ran crazy around in, but a 300 total touch, 1,200 yard, 10 touchdown season is completely within Bell’s range. Even if you don’t buy the argument that he is physically comparable to Doug Martin, or if you don’t like his running style, none of that changes the biggest argument in his favor: touches. Running back touches are at a premium, and unlike other guys around his ADP neighborhood (David Wilson, Montee Ball, Chris Ivory, Ryan Mathews) there is no threat to his backfield dominance. The Steelers have had chances to see what Redman and Dwyer do with starters touches, and neither was up to the task. If they were, the Steelers wouldn’t have drafted Bell with such a premium pick.

It’s worth noting that the Steelers decision to let Mike Wallace walk in free agency most likely signifies a shift back to the more run-oriented offense in which Ben Rothlisberger has always succeeded. Antonio Brown is an above average wide receiver, but he isn’t cut in the mold of a true NFL WR1 (for that matter, neither is Mike Wallace; Don’t tell Jeff Ireland that) and Emmanuel Sanders is more of the same playing the Z position. Rookie Markus Wheaton and elder statesmen Plaxico Burress round out the WR corp. None of these players are going to demand the offense revolve around them. After years of lip service, it appears that Steelers may actually be committed to returning to the ground game.

Perhaps most important is that the Steelers will be getting David DeCastro back from a knee surgery that lead to him only playing 138 snaps in 2012. DeCastro is a superstar in the making, a run mauler of the highest degree and adding him back to the Steelers line improves it dramatically. This article from Beyond The Steel Curtain explains the offensive line woes of the last 3 years for the Steelers, as well as shows some optimism for the group in 2013.

Given the Steelers roster, Ronnie Brown‘s 2005 season is towards the bottom of Bell’s range. Provided he proves adequate in pass protection, and doesn’t fumble the ball in Week One, Brown’s 1197 yards and 5 touchdowns are the floor of what Bell will do in this offense. The Steelers have given lip service to returning to the ground game as their emphasis, and while that probably won’t ever happen the way fantasy owners want it too (Todd Haley really, really hates us), the only choice the team has if they want to win is to utilize someone that management spent a very valuable resource on. The convergence of Bell’s talent, the inferior backfield competition, the resources spent to acquire him, the improvement of the offensive line and the departure of Mike Wallace all point towards Bell as a underrated fantasy asset.

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    Davis Mattek is a 21 year old English Major at Kansas State University. He can be found most days writing about fantasy sports for www.sportswunderkind.com , FantasyInsiders, RotoAcademy and Rotoviz.