Le'Veon Bell vs. James Conner - Part 1
Last season was filled with anticipation, anger and a whole lot of name calling when it came to fantasy football and Le’Veon Bell. The once Pittsburgh Steeler superstar was the center of conversations as he refused to play for the team amidst an ongoing contract dispute. This resulted in him sitting out an entire season. In turn, the Steelers called upon James Conner to be Bell’s replacement. When called upon, Conner but up impressive numbers for a “next-man-up” and held his own in the Steelers' backfield. Now, as another NFL season is quickly approaching, and therefore another fantasy football season, those same feelings of anticipation arise as Bell has joined the New York Jets. What can we expect with him on this new team? Also, what can we expect from Conner in year two as a starter? Can he repeat what he did in season one? In this two-part article we will break down both runningbacks and their projected 2019 seasons and in turn, compare the two. Which of the two former teammates will have the better fantasy football season? Were the Steelers right in not paying Bell what he wanted and let him walk and replace him with James Conner? Let us take a look.
*Please note that this article may be a little skewed as we don’t have 2018 statistics of Bell to go off of, so we will use 2017 stats.
In 2017, among qualifying NFL running backs, Bell ranked 23rd in terms of yards-per-rushing-attempt at four yards. At the same time, he lead the league in rushing attempts by 34 over second place LeSean McCoy. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers’ offensive line ranked seventh in 2017. Therefore, working behind a top ten offensive line, Bell managed just four yards per carry. He does hold a career average yards-per-rushing-attempt of 4.4 yards, 4.6 yards if you exclude his rookie year.
Again, excluding his rookie year, Bell has operated behind a top 10, and at times a top five, offensive line. Why is this important? Because according to the same people at Football Outsiders, the New York Jets’ offensive line ranked dead last in the league, with it being much worst against the run than the pass. The Jets also have done very little to improve the offensive line from last season. The only addition the Jets made was bringing in guard Kelechi Osemele. Osemele is an upgrade as he played 11 games last year and 16 games in 2017 for the Raiders, where the offensive line ranked 13th and 11th respectively. Bell is a patient runner. He sits behind his line until he finds the opening and explodes through. With the Jets’ offensive line being one of the worst in the league, those chances are going to be limited.
Speaking of chances, the Jets ranked 13th in 2018 in running percentage in terms of offensive plays at 42.22-percent. I guess we also need to look at what the Miami Dolphins did as well as Adam Gase comes over from Miami to coach the Jets. The Dolphins ranked 12th in running percentage at 42.26%. Looking at these numbers, you’ll have to assume the Jets will be a top half team in terms of using the run. We should expect those numbers to rise with a big name such as Bell in its backfield.
If we take the number of offensive plays that the Jets averaged per game last year, which is 60.7 and multiply that by the 42.26% of running plays that the Dolphins averaged under Gase last year, we get an average of 25.7 running plays per game. Let’s assume that Bell will be in on 80-percent of offensive snaps (which is a bit generous with the Jets rostering Elijah McGuire, Trenton Cannon and Ty Montgomery as well.) Therefore, he’ll average around 20 carriers per game. Since he averaged four yards per carry the last time he played and the Jets backfield of Isaiah Crowell, Elijah McGuire, Bilal Powell and Trenton Cannon combined to average 3.8 yards per carry, we’ll meet in the middle at 3.9 yards for Bell. That would put Bell at 78 yards a game.
Let’s take a look at touchdowns for Bell. Last season the Jets ranked 30th in the league when it came to scoring touchdowns while in the redzone at a conversion rating of 44.44%. Of the 44-percent, 11 of the touchdowns came via the ground and 18 came through the air. So therefore, 16.7% of the time when the Jets were in the redzone last season, they scored a rushing touchdown.
Now of course, these were the redzone numbers of the Jets under Todd Bowles last year, so let’s figure out how the Dolphins did with Adam Gase. Miami was not much better when it came to scoring a touchdown while in the redzone. The Dolphins ranked 27th last year, converting 51.61% of chances. Miami scored just seven rushing touchdowns and had 26 through the air. That leaves us with a very minimal 10.9-percent of drives for the Dolphins ending in a rushing touchdown.
Now of course, Bell is believed to be an elite talent. He’ll get more chances than what the runners of the Jets and Miami did a year ago. But let’s play this hypothetical game. If we average out how the Jets and Dolphins performed via the ground last year in terms of scoring touchdowns, we end up with them converting 48% of redzone visits with a touchdown. They would scoring an average of nine rushing touchdowns and 22 passing touchdowns. That leaves us with them scoring a rushing touchdown on 14% of redzone visits.
This leaves Bell, according to the numbers I ran (which you should take with a seriously small grain of salt) to record 1,248 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns. That would be 166.8 fantasy points from rushing alone.
Now let's get into his receiving stats. This is a bit harder to predict. In 2018, Elijah McGuire was the highest ranked runningback for the Jets in reference to targets-per-game at 40th. In 2017, the last time Bell played, he was the second most targeted runningback to only Christian McCaffrey. Kenyan Drake was the highest ranked Dolphins runningback in terms of targeted runningbacks at 13th, receiving 4.6 targets per game.
With the likes of Drake receiving 4.6 targets per game in 2018 in Miami where he played 59.2-percent of the offensive snaps at running back, if the Jets were to average 60.7 plays per game, and Drake were on the team, he would have averaged 36 snaps a game. Meaning he received a target every eighth snap. In the same scenario, if Bell played 80-percent of snaps (48.6 snaps) and received a target every eight snaps, he would receive six targets a game. In 2017 he caught 80-percent of his targets. This would result in him recording 4.8 receptions a game. That would equate to 76.8 receptions on the season.
In 2017, Bell averaged 7.7 yards per reception. If that were to be the case again he would record 591.36 receiving yards this season. If there was one thing the Jets did right last year, that would be the yards per receptions of their running backs. Among Crowell, Powell, Cannon and McGuire, they combined to average nine yards per reception. In Gase’s system a year ago, Drake averaged 9 yards per reception as well. Therefore, if we plug 9 yards per reception in for Bell at 76.8 receptions, we get 691.2 yards.
Another promising state for Bell is that Drake scored five rushing touchdowns under Gase last year. Bell has not scored more than three in a season. Jets’ runningbacks combined for a total of two receiving touchdowns. For this breakdown, we’ll give Bell his career best of three receiving touchdowns.
That’s an additional 69.1 fantasy points from receiving yards and 18 points from receiving touchdowns.
In standard leagues, this would put Bell at 253.9 points, which would have been good for RB5 last season. He would improve to 292.2 points in half-point PPR leagues, which would have put him at RB5. In full point PPR he would finish at 330.7 points, putting him again at RB5.
So I guess what I’m saying is, Le’Veon Bell will finish the 2019 season as a top six running back, that is if he were to play all 16 games. I’m putting him at RB6 because via my calculations he would finish slightly above Ezekiel Elliott, who I’m taking over Bell.
In the upcoming days I’ll run similar calculations on James Conner to see what we should expect out of Bell’s replacement. After my research and calculations for this article, I can say I’m high on Bell. He’s going to have a great season with the Jets, even if the head coach didn’t want him there in the first place.