The New York Jets had arguably the splashiest offseason in football. Mike Maccagnan handed out $226.6 million in free-agent contracts, per Spotrac, a full $41 million more than the next-closest team. The crown jewel of that spending spree, obviously, was former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who was brought in on a .
Though the deal is of questionable value, Bell himself is not. He has proven throughout his career that he has “best running back in the league” upside, and his talent and versatility should prove tremendously beneficial for the Jets, and particularly quarterback Sam Darnold.
Perhaps Bell’s greatest asset is his versatility. When we last saw him on the field in 2017, Bell was widely considered the best pass-catching running back in football. During his time with the Steelers, he racked up 312 receptions and 2,660 receiving yards in just 62 games. According to Pro-Football-Reference, that 42.9 receiving yards per game average is the best among all running backs with at least 50 games played since the AFL-NFL merger. It’s nearly four full yards per game more than Marshall Faulk.
As such, Bell is also clearly the best pass-catching back any Adam Gase-coached team has ever had. During his time as an offensive coordinator (2013-2015) and head coach (2016-2018), Gase running backs have caught 72.7 percent of passes thrown in their direction, with their quarterbacks averaging 6.16 yards per attempt on those players. Bell’s numbers alone are considerably better, and when you prorate his games played to match those of Gase’s running backs during the same span of time, the difference between him and them becomes even clearer.
|2013||DEN||Moreno, Ball, Hillman||92||115||80.0%||812||7.06|
|2014||DEN||Anderson, Ball, Hillman||64||91||70.3%||525||5.77|
|2016||MIA||Ajayi, Williams, Drake||59||77||76.6%||446||5.79|
|2017||MIA||Ajayi, Williams, Drake||66||96||68.8%||461||4.80|
|2018||MIA||Gore, Drake, Ballage||74||100||74.0%||657||6.57|
|ALL||Gase||Various (96 games)||421||579||72.7%||3569||6.16|
|CAREER||PIT||Bell (62 games)||312||397||78.6%||2660||6.70|
|PRORATED||PIT||Bell (96 games)||483||615||78.6%||4121||6.70|
Last season’s Jets running backs, meanwhile, caught 68-of-102 passes thrown in their direction (66.7 percent) for 599 yards (5.87 per attempt). Clearly, Bell is also a superior passing-game option than guys like Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire, and Trenton Cannon.
And Bell’s versatility extends beyond just the ability to catch the ball. He has extensive experience lining up both in the slot and out wide, combining for more than 500 snaps in those locations during his career, per Pro Football Focus. If Gase is smart, he’ll boost each of those figures in 2019, getting Bell out into more space and challenging defenses to either cover him with a linebacker or safety to give Bell an advantage, or else slide a cornerback onto him and create said advantage for Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, Jamison Crowder, or (once he returns from a four-game suspension) Christopher Herndon.
Bell’s equal abilities as a runner and pass-catcher also give the Jets more of an element of surprise after the snap. They were considerably more likely to run with Crowell on the field than Powell last season, and considerably more likely to pass when Powell was in the game. With Bell, there’s no hand-tipping. In a league where even the slightest bit of hesitation from defenders could be all an offense needs to break a big play, that unpredictability is extremely valuable. Perhaps just as importantly, the attention paid to Bell when he goes out in routes will divert defenders away from other short-area threats. That means more room for Crowder to operate in the slot. It means more room for Herndon over the middle and up the seams. And it means wider throwing lanes for Darnold, who will thus be put in a better position to succeed than he was during his rookie year.
Bell’s arrival is one of several reasons why CBS Sports analyst Tony— who he believes has the “it” factor — and the Jets offense in 2019.
Bell’s presence should also benefit the Jets’ play-action attack, because even though the connection between rushing effectiveness and play-action performance is more tenuous than we have generally been led to believe over the years, it’s undoubtedly true that defenses will feel more threatened by a Bell carry than they were by Crowell or Powell or any of the Jets’ other backs. Considering play-action passes are historically more efficient than those from straight drop-backs, and that Darnold averages nearly a full yard more per play-action attempt than he did when throwing without a run-fake last season, that should also be beneficial for the New York offense. Specifically, those fakes can open up opportunities for Anderson — the team’s best deep threat — and Herndon — who is their most dynamic playmaker over the middle and who has flashed excellent chemistry with Darnold.
Additionally, Bell’s ability in an underrated area of running back importance should aid Darnold’s progression. Though not asked to do it all that often, Bell has been an excellent pass-blocker throughout his career. Per PFF’s data, Bell has pass-blocked on 333 snaps, allowing only 22 pressures and three sacks during that time.
By way of comparison, Jets running backs allowed two sacks and 13 pressures last season alone, on just 95 pass-blocking snaps.
All of this, of course, is just prelude to Bell’s abilities as a runner. His patient, tap-dancing style allows him to avoid hits that other running backs might take, and combined with the excellent offensive line he ran behind during his Pittsburgh career, it allowed him to gain yards before first contact that might not have otherwise been there. Transitioning to a new line will mean an adjustment, and the guys up front may have to get used to Bell not hitting holes the same way as other running backs they have blocked for, but he has shown that this style works extremely well, and it should continue to in New York.
So long as he stays on the field, everything Bell brings to the table should combine to make life much easier for all of his teammates, and that can only mean good things for the offense.