Le’Veon Bell And The History Of 1000-Yard Receiving Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ drafting of running back Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft was cause for some cautious excitement at the time. There were some who questioned whether or not he was drafted too high, while others couldn’t help but wonder why Eddie Lacy wasn’t the pick while he was still on the board.

Even though he began his rookie season with a foot injury that delayed his debut by three games, he scored two touchdowns after being handed the starting job. By the end of the season, however, he finished with just a 3.5-yard average.

Of course, Bell had a breakout sophomore season that set franchise record and matched the accomplishments of all-time greats, garnering Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors. He was recently ranked as the 16th-best player in the league in the NFL’s Top 100 Players list for 2015.

Much of the enthusiasm surrounding Bell revolves around the fact that he has shown himself to be so multi-talented as both a ball carrier and a pass catcher. He shattered club records for running backs last season after posting 83 receptions for 854 yards.

His superb season has naturally led to speculation that he could be the next running back to achieve the exceedingly rare feat of gaining 1000 receiving yards in a season, which only three running backs have accomplished in history. Only two of those three have done so while also gaining 1000 yards on the ground.

The feat was accomplished twice during the 1985 season, with 49ers running back Roger Craig rushing for over 1000 and catching pass for worth 1016 yards. Chargers running back Lionel James set what was then a record with 1027 yards, and also set the all-purpose yardage mark at the time.

Both of those records were broken over time, with the former being surpassed by Marshall Faulk of the Rams in 1999 when he caught 87 passes for 1048 yards. Faulk is a Hall of Famer, while Craig was an All-Pro who contributed to multiple championship teams. James was a bit of an oddball one-year standout who contributed more in the receiving game than as a runner.

This history lesson sets up just how improbable it is that Bell will be able to reach that 1000-yard mark, a feat accomplished by only three true running backs in league history. As best as I could calculate while wading through the data, Bell’s 854 yards as a true running back seems to be the 12th-best such mark in league history.

And that was a feat, of course, that he accomplished in 16 games, whereas he is slated to begin the 2015 season on a three-game suspension. In order to reach 1000 yards in 13 games, Bell would have to average 77 receiving yards per game.

Last season, Bell averaged 53 receiving yards per game. He only reached or eclipsed the mark of 77 yards four times during the season,  though he did post a career-high of 159 yards in one game.

While the suspension, in my estimation, makes it prohibitively difficult to even consider him a candidate to crack 1000 receiving yards in 2015—considering that Faulk mustered only a 48-yard surplus in 16 games to set the record for the position—I do think it’s very possible that he reaches that feat at some point in his career.

But it has to be said that in order for that to happen, his game must continue to improve. He would need to improve his per-game average in receiving yards by 10 yards to set the necessary pace to reach the mark. As talented as he is, it’s simply an incredibly rare accomplishment. And the fact is that the Steelers are not hurting for targets in the receiving game.

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