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Should fantasy managers worry about Le'Veon Bell?

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The Le'Veon Bell saga appears to be over ... well, at least for this year.

Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers were unable to come to an agreement on a new deal, leaving the fantasy superstar to play under the team's franchise tender once again. Like last season, Bell is planning to hold out of training camp and report to the team at some point before Week 1. On the surface, that doesn't seem like an ideal situation for fantasy footballers who plan to target him at the top of their drafts.

But ... should it even matter?

After all, Bell was in the exact same situation in 2017 and he still finished with 341.60 PPR points. That was good for second at his position behind only Todd Gurley's 383.3. Keep in mind, however, that Bell had a slow start to the season. In his first two games, he rushed for a combined 119 yards with no touchdowns and scored just 20.8 PPR points. He also failed to record 100 scrimmage yards in a game until Week 4, when Bell came out of his statistical funk and burned the Baltimore Ravens for 186 total yards, two scores and 34.6 PPR points.

From that point on, he was exactly what we expected he would be all along. Elite.

His first four matchups for the 2018 campaign start with a road game against the Cleveland Browns, who held Bell to 7.7 points in last season's opener. In Week 2, he's at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. Their defense allowed an averaged of 24.6 PPR points per game to backs on the road last season, which ranked 17th in the league. His third game is a roadie against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who allowed the sixth-most points to runners on their home field. His fourth matchup is a home game against the Ravens, who he tore up (also in Week 4) of last season.

Clearly, the first few weeks of the schedule isn't difficult based on the 2017 FPA (fantasy points against) totals.

From a historical perspective, holdouts have been problematic at times for running backs. Whether it's been Maurice Jones-Drew (2012), Chris Johnson (2011), Steven Jackson (2008) or Larry Johnson (2007), there's been somewhat of a trend of injuries or a decline in stats when a back misses training camp. Of course, we can also look at the likes of Emmitt Smith (1993), Marshall Faulk (1999) and Bell (2017) in their holdout seasons and see that the trend is not 100 percent predictive. In other words, it shouldn't keep you from taking Bell in your fantasy drafts.

Now let's cover another trend that could affect Bell, which has more to do with excessive workloads and whether or not statistical success can be sustained season-to-season. Remember, the Steelers star led the NFL with 406 touches in 2017. In the previous 18 seasons, there were 17 instances of a running back finishing with 400 or more touches. The average drop in touches these running backs experienced the following year was 111.7. That's a boatload, friends ... but is that trend a bit deceptive?

Let's find out.

In five of those 17 instances (29 percent), a decline in touches was due in part to a holdout and/or injuries. Larry Johnson (2008) held out and then missed eight games with an injured foot, Edgerrin James (2001) blew out his knee after six games, Steven Jackson (2007) held out and missed four games due to an injured groin, Jamal Lewis (2004) had a bad ankle that cost him four games, and Curtis Martin (2005) missed four games with a bum knee. A decline in another of those 17 instances was due to retirement, as Ricky Williams called it a career in 2004 (at least for that season).

Of the remaining 11 instances, three of which came from fantasy immortal LaDainian Tomlinson, all of the backs played in at least 14 games following a campaign with 400-plus touches. So, will Bell now add to the percentage of runners we mentioned who saw their playing time decline due to injuries? My guess is no. He's been pretty durable since the MCL tear that cost him 10 games in 2015. And if you remember, that was sort of a freak injury where his right leg was pinned awkwardly under the body of Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict on a tackle as Bell ran down the sidelines.

To me, that's not a check mark in the "lack of durability" box.

The other games he's missed have been due to suspensions or simply being held out of meaningless late-season games, not injuries.

In a tweet to his fans on Monday, Bell promised that the 2018 campaign would be his "best season to date." Bell's agent, Adisa Bakari, also said in a statement obtained by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport that "this now likely will be Le'Veon's last season as a Steeler." That tells me two things ... first, Bell isn't planning to miss regular-season games (as was rumored earlier in the week). Second, the Steelers are very likely to ride their stud back once again. If he's not coming back, wouldn't you want to get the most out of him on a team with Super Bowl aspirations?

It would also behoove Bell to be in great shape and have another monster season, as NFL teams are already stingy when it comes to paying running backs what they're worth (which is why we're in this situation in the first place). If he comes out and has a big season in the stat sheets, which has been what he's done for most of his NFL career, Bell should find it much easier to find a suitor willing to fork over some major dough in the 2019 offseason.

He knows it, and his agent knows it too.

As a fantasy owner, I would have no reservations about taking Bell with one of the first three picks in re-drafts despite his holdout, including the top overall selection. Maybe I'm somehow tempting fate that Bell can hold out and shine once again, while also knowing that he'll be hard pressed to duplicate the 406 touches he saw in 2017. We'll see. I do know this ... Bell will be in a Steelers uniform for the regular-season opener, he'll be motivated to produce in what is for all intents and purposes a contract year, and the Steelers will continue to feed him the football (I'd project around 350-380 touches).

Sign me up.


Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com and NFL Network and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Do you want the most up-to-date fantasy news and analysis? You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram!

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