Michael Nania lays out how Le’Veon Bell can get back to producing at an elite level with merely average blocking in front of him.
On tape, Le’Veon Bell looked very much like the same man who entered 2019 having averaged 110.0+ scrimmage yards per game in four consecutive seasons. He consistently showcased the same patience and elusiveness that made him a megastar in Pittsburgh.
However, with an abysmal stable of blockers in front of him, Bell had no chance of replicating his past success from a statistical standpoint. He averaged career-lows of 52.6 rushing yards and 0.20 rushing touchdowns per game, gaining a putrid 3.2 yards-per-carry.
Can Bell rebound in 2020?
Any optimism surrounding Bell’s future with the Jets is built around one thing and one thing only: the offensive line.
Joe Douglas has been ultra-aggressive towards fixing the offensive line throughout the 2020 offseason. While the unit may still be a year or two away from reaching elite status, it should be at least competent in 2020, which could not be said regarding the 2019 group.
Bell’s skill-set is built around maximizing the offensive line. His patience and intelligent decision-making allow him to get the very most out of what is available. Whereas other backs often get greedy looking for the home run, Bell focuses on racking up singles and doubles, ensuring that the strong blocks of his teammates do not go to waste.
In order for that approach to yield season-long positive value for the team, it is a necessity for the offensive line to play well. Bell enjoyed that luxury in Pittsburgh. During his time as a Steeler, there was not a back in the league who did a better job than Bell of keeping his offense on schedule through avoiding stuffs in the backfield and consistently churning out positive gains. With holes constantly being opened, Bell’s ability to identify the correct hole made a massive impact thanks to the litany of opportunities it had to shine.
As we saw with the Jets in 2019, Bell’s mentality is not going to pay dividends when holes are never opening up.
For these reasons, Bell is the type of back whose value increases exponentially alongside the quality of his blocking. Obviously, every running back will put up better numbers with better blocking, but Bell’s value is even more closely connected to his blocking than most other players because of his unique style. He does not have the long speed to mitigate a lack of holes with the occasional game-breaker, but he has the feel for the game to take advantage of good blocking like nobody else.
Thus, the more well-blocked plays he gets, the more above-replacement-level value Bell will add.
Bell was the league’s all-time leader in scrimmage yards per game coming into 2019 (129.0). So, sure, anybody would look better behind a good offensive line, but Bell was the best-producing running back in history behind one.
Nobody takes advantage of a good situation more effectively than Bell does. For that reason, the upside of giving him high-quality blocking is substantially higher than it is for just about any other running back.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, Bell ranked 44th out of 45 qualified running backs with an average of just 1.17 yards before contact-per-carry in 2019. The average among the group of 45 backs was 2.12.
So, for the sake of this optimistic projection, let’s say that the Jets’ rebuilt offensive line gives Bell the standard 2.12 yards before contact per carry in 2020.
With a jump to even just average blocking, Bell’s numbers would absolutely skyrocket.