Le’Veon Bell will almost certainly not play. Based on an interview with his agent, he may not play for awhile, as he is concerned about limiting his touches for a team that won’t pay him before hitting free agency.
Most drafts are done, but where should you value Le’Veon Bell while the uncertainty of him playing lingers? And how much is his backup, James Conner, worth with this news?
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Let’s go through it using fantasy win probability added. (I did a similar exercise last year with Ezekiel Elliott and his suspension). You can’t simply calculate the per-game averages you expect for Bell, multiply it by the number of games, and use that total to plug him into the rankings. The same is true of Conner. In fantasy, the value is having a player who performs above replacement value. In this case, replacement value is around 7.5 FanDuel fantasy points (An average of 33.5 running backs hit that number per week last year). You don’t simply take a zero when Bell is out, you can start someone else–and if that someone is Conner, then you are okay. So the consideration in ranking Bell going forward is “Bell’s expected points per game, times games expected, plus replacement value per game times remaining weeks out.”
Over the last four years, Le’Veon Bell has averaged 20.6 FanDuel fantasy points per game. Over that same span, in games where Bell has not played, the replacements have combined for 19.9 FanDuel fantasy points per game. Most of those were a 32 and 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams playing the majority of snaps.
So let’s say that we use Bell’s average to set his value, and 90% of the backup value (18.0 FanDuel points) to set Conner’s value per game when Bell is out.
That gives us the following Wins Added Chart for Bell and Conner depending on how many games Bell sits out:
Intuitively, Conner’s value goes up as Bell sits out more, and the overall value of the Pittsburgh goes down slightly with each week that Bell sits out. I should also point out that these value numbers assume that Bell will play in 90% of games that he is available once he reports, and Conner will be the replacement due to health 90% of the time if Bell misses a game due to injury, and they also include a bye week.
Conner goes from 0.1 fWAR (fantasy wins above replacement) to about 0.8 fWAR depending on if he is the backup to Le’Veon Bell all year, or playing as the Pittsburgh starter more than half of the games. Bell is at about 1.8 fWAR if he plays all year–think of it as if an otherwise average team would win go about 10-6 with Bell on the fantasy roster if he played all year. But he would drop to a little over 0.8 if he didn’t report until Week 10 (8 games missed plus the Steelers bye).
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But you probably need some context for those numbers. Devonta Freeman, in 14 games last year, had about 0.77 fWAR, similar to the values for Bell and Conner if Bell sits out half the season. Carlos Hyde was at 0.85 fWAR last year and finished 9th in total points at RB.
So Bell’s value goes from 1st overall quality with no lost games, to roughly RB10-15 with missing half the season. If he misses two games, he’s at about the fWAR of 2017 Alvin Kamara. At 4-5 games, he’s at about the fWAR of 2017 Leonard Fournette. That should give you an idea of what his trade value is with the uncertainty of between 1 and 8 games.
Meanwhile, Conner goes from basically barely above roster replacement if Bell starts the season, to nearly the same RB10-RB15 range. If you are valuing him for draft purposes (if you still draft tonight), then his value depends on whether you have Bell. If you have Bell, I think you have to plan for worst case scenario, and take Conner before anyone else jumps on him. He should go before Mark Ingram for example, for you. Ingram is another guy serving a suspension and who’s situation is less certain (Kamara could take more of the work even when back) and generally going in the early 20’s at RB.
If you don’t have Bell, I think Conner should still go in the same range as Tevin Coleman, Dion Lewis, and similar backs.
Most leagues have moved on to free agency, though. I think a good estimate is that if you can get 1.0 fWAR from your free agency pickups, you are doing good, and 2.0 fWAR would be fantastic. If you have Bell, no pickup will be more valuable than Conner replacing Bell while he is out. He’s worth at least 60% of your FAAB. With the news today and the increased possibility of Bell missing multiple games, I think Conner’s price for the average team making a bid is in 40% range. If you want to think of it in this context, Alex Collins and Kenyan Drake were worth about 40% of FAAB last year while starting half a season, and Conner has a higher per-game expectation. I’d estimate Conner as a low-end RB1 if he played as the starter all year (behind the Fournette/Hunt/Gordon/McCaffrey group but around Dalvin Cook).