Le’Veon Bell will finally be back on the field for the 2019 season after sitting out 2018 due to a contract dispute. Now in a new home with the New York Jets, Bell is hoping to pick up right where he left off during his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But will that actually happen?
Sure, he put up back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2016 and 2017 coming off a career-threatening injury. But that was in a Pittsburgh offense that ran a ton of plays, had one of the top offensive lines in the league, and relied solely on Bell’s production out of the backfield.
The Jets are a different animal. While vastly improved, he’s on a team that likely won’t be competing for the division crown and he’ll start off the season by sharing the backfield with Ty Montgomery.
Is he still one of the best backs in the league? Yes. But it’s important to understand why and the risks that come with it.
Yards Per Carry
Bell is a patient runner. He waits for his offensive line to open up holes before bursting through. But he doesn’t often get too much further. In 2017, he was 24th among NFL running backs with 100 or more carries in yards per attempt with 4.02.
While it’s never a bad thing to gain positive yardage, he struggled to really break off explosive carries. So how did he get 1,291 yards on the ground? Well, a league-most 321 carries will do the trick. He saw the ball a ton that season and was Pittsburgh’s main and sometimes only backfield weapon.
Comparable rushers with over 250 carries that season who are still putting up strong numbers include Todd Gurley (4.68), Kareem Hunt (4.88), and Jordan Howard (4.07).
It’s also important to note that of the Steelers 1,027 offensive plays run in 2017, 437 of them were rushes. To compare, Adam Gase ran 962 total plays with the Dolphins that season and only 360 were runs. Gase has a penchant for passing but has proven in the past that he can split rushes and passes evenly.
Last year, the Jets o-line struggled in run protection, ranking 29th in the league. They did do a fair job, however, at protecting Sam Darnold. With the addition of veterans Kelechi Osemele and Ryan Kalil, along with Bell’s ability to spot an opening, the Jets run production should improve.
However, two players don’t completely solve the problem and it will be a step back from what Bell is used to running behind in Pittsburgh. He has been working on getting more in-sync with his offensive line but Bell still has a ways to go in the Jets system.
Where You Should Pick Bell?
Some projections and mock drafts have Bell as high as fifth on their running-back boards. That’s a monumentally high pick for a guy who hasn’t played a snap in over a year. Sure he’s healthy, but a new system, splitting snaps, and an inferior offensive line must be taken into account.
Bell is talented, and his numbers in the receiving game are even impressive for a run-heavy back like he is. Sam Darnold could be forced to use Bell as a check down even more if his protection falters again.
Should you take him in the first round? Yes, he’s a mid-first guy but, like his running style, you’ll have to be patient for his production to improve. And if you’re still wary after taking all the details above into account, there’s a ton of backs out there this year providing more certainty.