The start of NFL training camp officially ushers in the dog days of summer. You can feel a difference in the air, as more and more actual football news begins to surface. The anticipation is building across America for one of the greatest days of the year – your fantasy football draft! For the average player, it is time to start studying so you don’t make a critical error on that fateful day. Do you take this guy or that guy? Do you take a running back in the first round or air it out with an elite wide receiver? Some of the toughest decisions you make will be while on the clock with the seconds ticking down. You pull the trigger and make your selection but how do you know you took the right guy? Was there a key statistic or bit of info you may have overlooked? With some of these guys it’s like splitting hairs (as you’ll see below) yet with others there may be an issue lying just beneath the surface. Taking notice of this deficiency could save your fantasy season! Each week I’ll be taking an in-depth look at a few players with comparable average draft position you may need to decide between on your draft day. Let’s start at the top!
I must start this one by stating the obvious – barring any unforeseen circumstance you can’t go wrong drafting either of these two surefire studs. Nevertheless, the question has been posed a number of times, and given the premise of this series I felt inclined to start at the very top.
Where is Ezekiel Elliott?
So why is Ezekiel Elliott not in the mix with these two? Aside from his mounting off-the-field issues and the loss of two offensive linemen, he is simply not nearly as involved in the passing game as Bell or Johnson. During the 2016 campaign Elliott saw a respectable 40 targets come his way while Bell more than doubled that with 94 targets and David Johnson tripled that figure with 120 targets! That stat alone is enough to push Elliott down to third fiddle in the early running back decisions.
Despite missing the first three games of 2016, Bell pulled in an impressive 75 receptions for 616 yards and two touchdowns. The only running back with better receiving marks last season was David Johnson with 879 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 80 receptions. If we took Bell’s averages and applied them to the three games he missed, he still would have fallen short of Johnson’s 2016 receiving yardage numbers but mathematically should have had more receptions. Bell has the track record in this category posting excellent 2014 numbers (83 receptions, 854 yards, 3 touchdowns) but even that season doesn’t match what David Johnson did last year catching the ball.
Edge: Slight edge to Le’Veon Bell mainly due to the track record.
Two almost identical heights and weights, two very different running styles. Really, Bell’s style is in a league of its own. His patience is trademark and his combination of quickness and power is absolutely incredible. Bell looks like he’s playing basketball out there sometimes “breaking ankles” left and right. Some of the cuts he makes remind me of LeSean McCoy – just with more power!
Johnson possesses a great deal of power himself but he seems to apply it a little more than Bell. Johnson also has some great moves but his style is more of a one cut and get up field, no nonsense sort of attack. Both backs are elusive in their own way – by my count Bell had 59 broken/evaded tackles while Johnson has 74 broken/evaded tackles last season. These are tackles that they either broke free from or evaded without significant assistance from blocking. A great deal of Bell’s missed tackles came due to his superior shiftiness, and while Johnson is shifty in his own right, he tends to apply a little more “Beast Mode” when it comes to beating defenders.
Both backs possess excellent acceleration and top-end speed to simply outrun defenders as well. There really is no deficiency in either back’s game at this point. I have re-watched every touch each back had in 2016 and found myself in awe of their respective abilities. Statistically both backs were very similar on the ground with Bell actually out-gaining Johnson by a few yards despite missing three games. Don’t worry, Johnson made up for the yardage with 16 rushing touchdowns compared to Bell’s seven. I’m not chasing the touchdowns, but they are hard to ignore when you watch the games and see how they happened. Arizona fed its workhorse 58 carries in the red zone and was rewarded with 14 touchdowns as a result. Even if we take Bell’s red zone averages and stretch them out over 16 games he might have finished with roughly 41 red zone rush attempts and nine touchdowns.
Edge: David Johnson.
This is where the tie breaks for me. I always try to draft skills over situations but skill-wise these guys are both the best in the game today at their position. Furthermore, their situations are both outstanding scenarios for fantasy production. They are centerpieces in their respective offenses, each receiving more than 40 percent off their teams’ offensive touches last season. Johnson got the ball 47 percent of the time while Bell had the ball in his hands on 42 percent of Pittsburgh’s offensive touches despite only playing 12 games. To find a deciding statistical factor I go back to the red zone attempts. Again, we sort of have to “Frankenstein” a 16-game measurement due to Bell’s 2016 suspension but if we took his nine red zone targets last season and added three games, he likely would have had around 12 total red zone targets to go along with his potential 41 red zone rush attempts. I realize this isn’t a perfect science but it gives a decent idea of what could have been. This would give him roughly 53 red zone scoring opportunities compared to Johnson’s 73 opportunities (15 red zone targets) Oh, and speaking of Bell’s suspension which we’ve had to work around to extract these numbers – let’s not forget it was his second suspension in two years. Combine that with his time missed due to injury and his disgruntled contract situation and we officially have legitimate risk.
I think we have our clear answer …
David Johnson is No. 1 and Le’Veon Bell is No. 2.