By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson
Fantasy football is over. Or is it? Because I see it as the beginning. The beginning of the start of your season. Now is where you get the edge on your league mates. If you know all the ins and outs of who goes where – from players to coordinators and position coaches – you’re priming yourself for a trip to your fantasy playoffs in the upcoming season.
First comes free agency, then comes the draft. Sounds like the start of a fantasy addict’s nursery rhyme, but I digress. There will be plenty of content coming your way from Club Fantasy on this year’s draft class, but first, we start with NFL free agency.
This series will cover offensive players, as they have the most impact in fantasy circles and we at Club Fantasy don’t play individual defensive players, or IDPs as the kids call it these days.
First up on the free agent preview list: Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell enjoyed a return to fantasy prominence in 2016. After missing the better part of 2015 with injuries and suspension, and then missing the first three games of this season due to suspension, he still finished third in fantasy points scored among running backs. In the games he played – twelve, as Club Fantasy scoring doesn’t account for Week 17 – he averaged 27.53 fantasy points per game, good for second behind Cardinals’ RB David Johnson.
I think it’s safe to say: who wouldn’t want this guy?
We know one team who does – his current team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They showed last year that their offense is near unstoppable when Bell is the focal point of the offense. As great as his teammate – wide receiver Antonio Brown – is, Bell is the table setter. His patient running style is something the league has never encountered before, and his vision and burst allow the Steelers’ line time to create the holes that he inevitably bursts through.
So why am I even taking the time to write this article? As the lead states, Bell is a free agent. And with that status, us prognosticators get to think of crazy, likely unrealistic scenarios where Bell doesn’t re-sign with the Steelers and they fail to slap the Franchise Tag on him.
So I ask a simple question: if not Pittsburgh, where will Le’Veon Bell land? And will he still be as effective as he was for the Steel Curtain?
If you noticed the above picture, I’m pretty confident that Bell will re-sign with the Steelers. But that little horse underneath? Yeah, that represents the dark horse candidate that could emerge and steal Bell away. Who might that be? Let’s look at the teams with some reasonable cap space and could use a running back to help them take the leap.
New York Giants
This seems like an obvious choice. After spending greatly to help fix a porous defense, the Giants still have a good amount of cap space heading into the 2017 offseason, with almost $32 million available, according to overthecap.com. They were 30th in the NFL with a 3.5 yards per carry average; 29th in rushing yards per game at 88.3; and last in rushing touchdowns with six. Six! Bell by himself averaged 4.9 yards per carry, with seven rushing TDs and 1,268 yards rushing. And that doesn’t even account for his ability as a pass catcher out of the backfield, where he added 75 receptions for 616 yards and 2 TDs.
While the Giants have big needs at running back – and they took their first steps into correcting this by releasing incumbent Rashad Jennings after the season ended – they also have needs along the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the Giants line ranked 20th in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Steelers, who opened all those holes for Bell, ranked third.
It is rumored that Bell wants something in the neighborhood of Adrian Peterson money, which would make him the highest paid running back in the NFL. As arguably the best running back in the NFL, he has a right to ask for that. The Giants may not be able to upgrade the line in front and pay Bell what he’s looking for.
And really, would Bell and Odell Beckham Jr. be a better pair than Bell and Antonio Brown? At worst, you get similar production from Bell on your fantasy roster.
Green Bay Packers
It’s a well known fact that GM Ted Thompson ventures into NFL free agency about as often as Steph Curry misses a half court shot. Translation: rarely. But with an estimated $41 million to play with, if you’re going to dive in, do it in the deep end. The Packers averaged 106.3 yards per game, but that was with a running back masked as a running back after Eddie Lacy was lost for the season. The Packers also had the 5th ranked offensive line in football, and if they can bring back Guard T.J. Lang, a pending free agent himself, they’ll keep that great unit in tact. Imagine what Bell could do behind a stout line and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback? He’d move from one ideal situation to another.
New England Patriots
Could you imagine Bill Belichick dolling out big bucks to steal a key piece from a conference rival? He and the Patriots are strapped with the sixth highest available cap space at approximately $62 million, so one can dream, right? And truly, it makes all the sense in the world. The Patriots have a lot of key defensive pieces to lock up – Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler come to mind – but with an aging star quarterback in Tom Brady in the twilight of his career, getting him the best running back in the NFL could be too tempting to pass up. Remember, a quarterback’s job is always easiest with a stout running game behind him.
Of course, the Patriots already had one of the best running games in the NFL last year, with incumbent and fellow free agent LeGarrette Blount scoring a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns. But Blount averaged a paltry 3.9 yards per carry, a full yard less than Bell in 38 more carries. But Blount will be cheaper, much cheaper. Would Belichick sacrifice valuable cap space for a difference maker or not upset the status quo and keep things simple and save the cap space?
That was fun. But let’s be honest, Bell isn’t going anywhere. The Steelers will work to sign Antonio Brown to an extension and if they can’t agree to a long term deal with Bell, they’ll give him the franchise tag and work on a new deal next season. The Steelers can still compete with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, and will continue to replenish the defense through the draft. Get used to seeing Bell in black and yellow for the foreseeable future.