Le’Veon Bell struggled in his first season with the Jets in 2019. After signing a big four year, $52.5 million contract in free agency to join the team, expectations were sky-high. However, he fell well short of those lofty expectations. Bell posted 789 rushing yards on 3.2 yards per carry, both of which were atrocious, career-low numbers. He is not the same player he once was, but the blame for those struggles should not fall solely on his shoulders. The offensive line was awful, and the offensive system led by head coach Adam Gase was a mess. Bell still has the talent and produced receiving-wise, as well as in the open field. Also, he has become a team leader and a fantastic veteran presence in the locker room. That has been a pleasant surprise after questions about his attitude lingered when he was in Pittsburgh. The massive contract looks terrible in hindsight. However, Bell was not all that bad in 2019.
Offensive Line Struggles
Le’Veon Bell had to run behind an atrocious offensive line all of last season. Running backs can only do so much when the defensive line is breathing down their necks them before they even pass the line of scrimmage. Yards Before Contact Per Attempt (YBC/att.) is a very indicative stat for offensive line performance on rushing plays. It displays how much space a running back has before contact. Players with elite burst may excel in this stat regardless of their offensive line; however, it is a generally great statistic to see the correlation of offensive line performance to running back statistics. This stat was eye-opening in regards to Bell compared to other NFL running backs. Bell had 1.2 YBC/att., which was last in the league among qualifying running backs in 2019. To compare just how atrocious that number is, here are some notable others. Raheem Mostert came in at 3.5 YBC/att., 3.0 YBC/att. for Christian McCaffrey, Kenyan Drake had 2.8 YBC/att., Miles Sanders 2.5 YBC/att., 2.4 YBC/att. for Aaron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott 2.3 YBC/att., and Alvin Kamara also had 2.3 YBC/att. One yard is a massive difference when it comes to averages in the NFL. This is not a talent comparison of Bell to these players. It is merely showing how Bell was swallowed up quicker than any player in the league in 2019, as shown on tape and by stats like this one. Football Outsiders ranks offensive lines using analytics for both pass and run blocking. They rated the Jets offensive line 31st out of all 32 teams in terms of run blocking in 2019. They provide another credible and atrocious ranking of the offensive line that was blocking for Bell last season. The Jets offensive line certainly gave Le’Veon Bell no favors in 2019.
Poor Offensive System and Continuity
The system and continuity around Bell was also a factor in his poor 2019 campaign. The offense majorly struggled in its first season with Adam Gase as the head coach. Gase struggled drawing up good plays for Bell and the offense in general. Gase admitted at the beginning of training camp this week that he did a poor job calling plays for Bell last season, and plans to use him more effectively in 2020. The terrible play calling should fall on Gase, however having quarterback Sam Darnold miss time at the beginning of the season also severely hurt the continuity and development of the offense. Darnold missed a month of the season after contracting mono, and it set the offense back tremendously. Gase was tentative with his play-calling due to this, and Bell was thrown into bad situations. Bell also could not get comfortable playing with his new quarterback until late in the season. The offense was terrible as a whole. They ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per game with 273.0 and second to last in points per game with 17.25. Continuity in the system for another season and Gase using Bell more effectively should profoundly help Bell in his bid for a bounce-back 2020 season.
Still Extremely Talented
Bell still had some bright spots in his game last season. He had 28 broken tackles on the year, more than players like Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon, Miles Sanders, and Austin Ekeler. Bell also had 502 yards after contact, a nice amount, especially for someone with only 789 total rushing yards. That is more than players like Kamara, Drake, Sanders, and Ekeler. What makes that so impressive is that his contact was quicker and not in the open field like other running backs in the league. He had so few yards before contact that having so many yards after contact is astonishing. Also, many stats show how lethal Bell still is in the open field. Bell had more broken tackles per reception than many premier pass-catching running backs like McCaffrey, Barkley, Kamara, and Ekeler. Bell also had more yards after catch than great pass-catching running backs such as Barkley and Tarik Cohen. Pro Football Focus, the most respected NFL player grading service around, also thought somewhat highly of Bell’s 2019 season. PFF takes into account all the surrounding circumstances of players, like a poor offensive line. PFF graded Le’Veon Bell with a respectable 73.8 grade. That was higher than great running backs like Saquon Barkley, who had a 72.2 grade and Alvin Kamara with a 70.0 grade. None of these are player comparisons to Bell. They show how Bell truly can still stack up with the best running backs in the business. The talent is undoubtedly still there.
Le’Veon Bell has been training like an absolute mad man this offseason. He says he wasn’t in the shape he wanted to be last season and made sure it would be different this season. Bell says he is in the best shape of his career and that he is ready to be “the best Le’Veon Bell that’s ever played in the NFL.” That is a bold sentiment considering he is a 2-time All-Pro who was often considered the top running back in the game back when he was a Steeler.
Bell has used midnight boxing sessions to help get into the best shape of his career. He is said to be around 210 pounds, the lightest he has been since high school. Conceding his shape was not up to par last season, and going all out to fix that this season displays his intense work ethic. That work ethic to be in the best shape in his career should be another critical factor in a much improved 2020 season.
Leadership and Attitude
Le’Veon Bell was known to be someone without a team-first attitude from his time with the Steelers. Many questioned his attitude after holding out the 2018 season due to a contract dispute. Since he joined the Jets, he has been everything you want in a player attitude-wise. Bell has been a fantastic locker room presence. The first time adversity was met was at the 2019 trade deadline. After trade rumors swirled around both Bell and teammate Jamal Adams at the deadline, only the former treated it with grace. Bell responded after the deadline, saying he was “happy as hell to be a New York Jet.” Jamal Adams did not answer the same way and was traded this offseason. Bell was not happy with Adams’ trade request and the actual trade, as Adams had recruited him to New York and recently told him that he had wanted to stay. Despite all of that, Adams made a trade request, and off Adams went, much to the anger of Bell. He lashed out on Adams on Twitter.
Bell did this as the new voice of the locker room, representing the team. He has also said all the right things as training camp has gotten rolling. Bell called Coach Gase a good leader for the team, whom Adams claimed was a bad leader before the trade. Bell also took the blame for his struggles last season and did not blame lousy play calling or the atrocious offensive line. Both of those were factors, but Bell has been selfless, not blaming any teammates or coaches. He also showed up to camp in the best shape of his career, showing his motivated attitude. Bell has been a fantastic leader for the Jets since joining the team.
Final Thoughts and Stat Predictions
This article is not to defend Bell’s contract by any means. It was a poor contract to give to any running back. He also is not the same player he once was. However, Le’Veon Bell should not take all the blame for his terrible 2019 season and has been a fantastic leader for the Jets. Bell is poised for a bounce-back 2020 season after working extremely hard this offseason to get into excellent shape. A much better 2020 season is on the horizon for Bell, but not anything crazy. I predict that Bell will put up 1061 rushing yards on 242 carries, good for 4.3 yards per carry and score six rushing touchdowns. Also, I think he will have 71 receptions for 594 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. That totals 1655 scrimmage yards, a substantial amount. Le’Veon Bell is a fascinating player primed for a strong 2020 campaign.
Follow me on Twitter, @afreiberg8 for more!