One of the biggest questions of the NFL offseason has been answered, as superstar running back Le'Veon Bell is now facing a three-game suspension for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. He has been notified of the punishment and plans to appeal the suspension, per NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport.
This is massive news in fantasy football, as Bell was the second-ranked running back based on points a season ago and was projected as the No. 1 overall selection in 2015 drafts. While a three-game ban would be enough to scare a lot of owners from drafting him in the first round, I still see Bell as a top-10 fantasy selection despite a trend that doesn't bode well for his prospects.
Since 1970, there have been just 13 instances where a runner has missed at least three games and still finished among the top five fantasy backs. That's 13 instances out of 220 top-five finishers in 44 seasons -- not a great percentage. If we include the top 10s since 1970, we'll find another 15 instances that meet our baseline requirement.
Let's put that into perspective: six percent of runners who missed three or more games over the past 44 seasons finished among the top 10 fantasy backs.
But you ask, "how in the world does what someone did in the '70s have anything to do with Bell's 2015 value?" It's a long-term look at a trend that now has sudden importance to your fantasy draft. If you want a more recent evaluation, however, let's go back to 2005.
In that time, only Arian Foster (2014, 2011) and Darren McFadden (2010) missed a minimum of three games and still ranked among the five-best players at their position. Neither of those runners broke into the top three, however. If we increase our research to include the top 10s over the last decade, we find five more instances.
So while it's not impossible to be an elite runner after missing three or more games, it's been an unenviable statistical task. In fact, most of the backs who have accomplished this feat are among the elite in fantasy football lore.
On a positive note, Bell is one of the league's most talented and versatile runners. Some even compare him to the great LaDainian Tomlinson. And at the tender age of 23, the Michigan State product has youth on his side. He's also coming off a season with 287.5 fantasy points (or almost 18 points per game). If we project those numbers minus three games (13), Bell would have still ranked sixth in points among backs.
So, losing three games of production would have cost him four spots at a position that has become paper thin.
That's a huge part of the reason that despite all of the statistics listed above in over 40 years of data, a three-game suspension isn't going to be enough to push Bell too far south in drafts. Are the cards stacked again him to be a top-10 fantasy back? Based on the trends, the answer is yes. But how many running backs are locks to be drafted ahead of him? I can count six, including Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster
Of course, I can argue that there is obvious risk with at least four of those backs. Is Bell more or less of a risk than Lynch, who has had more carries than any other runner since 2011? Also keep in mind that among the top-10 ranked runners for 2015, five will be 28 or older. If we were in a different time, when featured backs were the norm and the NFL didn't have such a large number of backfield committees, Bell's suspension and the negative trend associated with runners missing three or more games would mean more. A lot more.
But in this age when workhorse runners are dinosaurs, a youthful back with elite talent can't be passed up in the first round, even if he is guaranteed to miss three games. If you decide to take Bell in Round 1, there are strategies to lighten the blow of his ban. First, target DeAngelo Williams in the middle to late rounds as a three-week handcuff. You should also pass on a quarterback and a tight end in the first six rounds, and focus on building a deep backfield.
You'll be in good shape until Bell returns, and when he does, you could have some real leverage in trade talks.