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WARNING SIGNS: Is Le’Veon Bell More Risk Than Reward?

Bump that workload up to over 400 touches (like Bell had a year ago) and the numbers get that much worse – albeit in an admittedly smaller sample size. Only two running backs since 2007 have touched the ball over 400 times in a season – Chris Johnson of the Titans in 2009 and DeMarco Murray with the Cowboys in 2014. Each back saw their yardage fall the next year by over 35 percent – and they averaged a fall of better than 40 percent.

But wait! It gets even better!

This isn’t the first time Bell has made an appearance on the list of 370-touch running backs. Back in 2014, Bell set career highs in rushing yards (1,361), yards per carry (4.7), receptions (83 – a mark he broke last year) and receiving yards (854). All told, Bell touched the ball 373 times. He also led all running backs in PPR fantasy points.

In 2015, Bell missed 10 games thanks to suspension and a knee injury. His total yardage plummeted by almost 70 percent. And Bell finished the year 47th in PPR fantasy points.

Care to venture a guess how that worked out for the folks who drafted Bell No. 1 overall?

THE OTHER SHOE

That 2015 face plant serves as a stark reminder of something many fantasy owners appear to be conveniently forgetting about Bell..

He’s not exactly a paragon of durability.

In five NFL seasons, Bell has played in all 16 games only once – in that magical 2014 season. The 26-year-old stayed relatively healthy a year ago, but he missed four games in 2016 and 10 the year before that. He was also suspended in both of those seasons.

That’s another factor that many fantasy owners don’t seem especially interested in taking into account. Bell’s been suspended for violations of both the personal conduct and substance abuse policies. If he gets into legal trouble or fails a drug test again, he’s going to get an extended vacation from Roger Goodell.

This isn’t to say he will. Only that it’s worth considering that Bell’s disciplinary history is arguably the worst of the “Big 4” backs and arguably worse than Johnson’s and Gurley’s.

There’s also the matter of Bell holding out of training camp for a second consecutive season. Granted, last year Bell showed up at Heinz Field 14 minutes before kickoff of Week 1 and was fine. Better than fine, even. But it wasn’t that long ago that Adam Schefter of ESPN was telling SiriusXM Radio that he thought this year’s holdout could go on much longer.

“I think it’s possible Le’Veon Bell sits out the first half of the year if he doesn’t get a long-term deal done,” Schefter speculated. “The goal at that point would be to hit 2019 free agency healthy, not rack up another 400 touches.”

Now is that likely? No. Bell’s all but certainly not going to leave upwards of $8 million on the table, and his agent has indicated that Bell will most likely follow the same scripts as last year and report just before the regular season begins.

But it can’t be ruled out that Bell might skip a game or two to make a point. And even if he doesn’t, it’s a second straight offseason away from the team and the structure of training camp. That doesn’t exactly help the case that Bell will somehow buck the historical data that shows he’s due for a sizable drop-off in production in 2018 after piling up 742 total regular -season touches the past two seasons.

Supporters of Bell will point to the fact he bucked the trend last year after creeping right to the edge of 370 in 2016 (and passing it if you count the postseason). They’ll also mention Johnson’s injury last year, Elliott’s lack of usage in the passing game and Gurley’s miserable 2016 season. Not to mention the positional scarcity that makes Bell more valuable than Brown.

That last one I’ll concede. As fantastic as AB is and as bust-proof as Brown is in fantasy football, I’ll admit I’d be hard pressed to pass on Bell for any wide receiver.

My name’s Gary, and I’m a back-aholic.

But Johnson and Gurley have both demonstrated that they have a ceiling just as high as Bell without his jaw-dropping workload the past couple of seasons (you know, the workload that’s the reason the Steelers aren’t giving Bell that long-term deal he wants). Elliott might not quite match their upside, but of the bunch, he’s been the most consistently durable (provided he stays out of trouble) and is a safe bet for 1,600 total yards and double-digit rushing scores as the focal point of the Dallas offense.

Bell is anything but a safe bet. He’s isn’t just the riskiest pick of the “Big 4” backs in 2018 – he’s exponentially riskier. If history is any indication, it’s much more likely he’ll fail to live up to his ADP than meet it. It’s more than a little possible he’ll miss by a lot and that risk is going to come back to bite a lot of fantasy teams this season.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

About Gary Davenport

A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America who resides in Columbus, Ohio, Gary has been featured on a number of fantasy websites and in nationally circulated publications. These publications include the USA Today Fantasy Football Preview and the magazines distributed by Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., for whom Gary is a both a contributing author and associate editor. Gary is an eight-time FSWA Award finalist and two-time winner who has been a finalist for that organization's Fantasy Football Writer of the Year award each of the last three years. He won the honor in 2017. Gary also appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio (including live from Radio Row at Super Bowl XLIX) and over-the-air stations across the country. Gary was one of the co-founders of, and Head Writer at, Fantasy Football Oasis before joining Fantasy Sharks as an IDP Senior Staff Writer in 2011. He knows football. Or so he's heard.