By Tony DelSignore Jr.
Entering his second season in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will look to pick up where he left off in 2013. The Steelers selected Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft to be a three down workhorse. After overcoming a scary foot injury in the preseason last year, which forced Bell to miss the first three games of his career, Bell proved to be the workhorse the Steelers anticipated. Bell piled up 1,259 total yards from scrimmage on 289 offensive touches (45 receptions) to go along with his eight rushing touchdowns.
The biggest debate in fantasy circles surrounding Bell this offseason is his yards per carry average during the 2013 season. Obviously his 3.52 yards per carry average in 2013 is far from what the Steelers would like from their starting running back. Red flags have been raised over the 3.52 YPC mark because of how it compares to recent draft pick Trent Richardson’s rookie season, in which he averaged 3.56 yards per carry. Thankfully, the narrative does not stop with Richardson. Ricky Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch all averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry as rookies. All of their careers have turned out just fine. NFL great LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 3.65 yards per carry as rookie. He bounced back to average 4.5 the very next season. Obviously, I am not saying Bell will be the next Tomlinson, but he does have talent and opportunity to produce as an elite fantasy running back.
While we can’t totally discount Bell’s below average rushing performance as a rookie, the stats show us an upward curve in his performance during the 2013 season. Bell clearly struggled to find holes in the first eight games of his rookie season. During that span, he averaged a mere 3.14 yards per carry. However, as his foot healed, Bell steadily improved as the season progressed. Over the final five games of the season, Bell averaged 4.0 yards per carry. There was also a clear improvement in the offensive line over the final two months of the season. The Steelers oft injured line was able to gel with a mix of backups and young players to help improve the offensive efficiency as a whole. This season Maurkice Pouncey will return from injury to boost the offensive line. Continuity at every other position on the line, along with the hire of top-shelf offensive line coach Mike Munchak creates optimism when looking at Bell’s fantasy prospects.
Part of the reason Bell has so much upside in fantasy football is because of his receiving ability. In PPR leagues, Bell has increased value and should be on your radar as early as the end of the first round. As the Steelers moved toward the no-huddle offense down the stretch last season, Bell was able to make a measurable impact on the passing game. The Steelers are at their best offensively when they can mix the run and pass to allow quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be more effective in the play action passing game. A healthy Bell seemed to turn the tides for the Steelers offense. As Bell improved toward the end of his rookie season, he gave the Steelers a formidable threat at the running back position as both a runner and receiver. Ben finally had a trusted receiving outlet out of the backfield. Bell notched 45 receptions in 13 games as a rookie. This year, he should have every opportunity to reach the 55 reception mark.
Concerns over the signing of LeGarrette Blount are somewhat overblown in my opinion. Blount was brought in to backup Bell, and will serve the purpose of keeping Bell fresh throughout the season. The only real concern is if Blount begins to see goal line work. Obviously that will hurt Bell’s fantasy value, but there has been no indication of such a shift so far in training camp. With Blount and rookie Dri Archer in the mix, the Steelers will keep defenses on their toes throughout the season with the running attack. Expect the Steelers to return to more of a balanced offensive attack this season, which may create even more chances for Bell to produce solid rushing statistics.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator (which tracks average draft position of every player in real and mock fantasy drafts throughout the offseason), Bell is being selected as the 10th running back in the middle of the 2nd round (*based on standard & PPR 12 team, 16 round drafts). Begin targeting Bell at the beginning of the 2nd round in your upcoming fantasy drafts.
My season projections for Le’Veon Bell are: 290 rushing attempts, 1,180 yards, 8 touchdowns. 56 receptions, 540 yards, 2 touchdowns.
Follow me on Twitter at @TonyD_12 and @SteelersDepot for more Steelers fantasy analysis and projections throughout the 2014 season.