As most of the football world debated and deliberated the upholding of Tom Brady's four-game suspension, another piece of discipline went by with far less fanfare. The NFL announced Tuesday that Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell would have his three-game suspension reduced by one, making him eligible for Pittsburgh's Week 3 contest at St. Louis. In Bell's absence, veteran runner DeAngelo Williams projects to be the starting back for Pittsburgh.
To investigate, let's take an historical look at how backs in Bell's projected (if not expected) situation have ranked based on fantasy production.
Since 1970, there have been just 22 instances where a runner has missed at least two games (or played in a maximum of 14) and still finished among the top five backs. We do need to put that into perspective ... that's 22 instances out of 220 top-five finishers in 44 seasons. Friends, that is not a great percentage. If we expand our data to include the top 10s since 1970, we'll find another 29 instances that meet our baseline requirement of missing at least two contests.
Again, let's put that into perspective. Over 44 years and 440 instances of top-10 finishers, 11.6 percent of those runners missed at least two games and still ranked among the elite.
All right now you might be thinking, "how in the world does what Franco Harris (for example) did in 1974 have anything to do with Bell's 2015 value?" Yes, 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, let's go back just 10 years starting in 2005.
In that time, a mere three running backs (four instances) who have missed a minimum of two games have ranked among the five-best players at their position. That list includes Arian Foster (2014, 2011), Darren McFadden (2010) and Peterson (2007). None 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 seven more instances that meet our criteria. Of those seven, five ranked eighth or lower.
To sum things up, just four of 50 top-5 finishers and 11 of 100 top-10 finishers in the last decade missed at least two games. So while it's not impossible to be an elite runner while playing in 14 or fewer games, it has been an unenviable statistical task. In fact, most of the backs who have accomplished this feat are among the elite in fantasy football lore ... names like Foster, Peterson, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Priest Holmes and Marshall Faulk.
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 average those numbers over 14 games (instead of the full 16), Bell would have still ranked third in points among backs behind DeMarco Murray and Lynch.
So, losing two games of production would have cost Bell one spot at a position that has become paper thin.
Finding a consistent featured running back in the NFL these days is like finding that proverbial needle in a haystack. That's why despite all of the statistics listed above in over 40 years of data, a two-game suspension shouldn't keep Bell from being the No. 1 overall pick. Are the cards stacked against him to be a top-10 fantasy back? Based on the trend, the answer is yes. But does a two-game suspension make him that much more of a risk than a runner like Murray, who is coming off a season with 392 carries?
How about Lynch, who has seen more carries over the last four years than any other runner in the NFL? Is Bell more or less of a risk? 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, well then maybe Bell's ban combined with the negative trend associated with runners missing two or more games would mean more.
A lot more.
But in this age when workhorse runners are unicorns, a youthful back with elite talent can't be passed up with a top-three selection (at worst) ... even under Bell's circumstances.