- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
For months, I appeared to be in the minority in ranking Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell as my No. 1 overall fantasy player for 2015 drafts, despite his three-game suspension looming because of his off-field transgressions before last season. It was obvious why others wouldn’t have chosen Bell first, whether it be a standard league or point-per-reception (PPR) format, and it’s because missing three games -- or nearly a quarter of the fantasy regular season for some -- is just too extreme.
Of course, now that the NFL has reduced Bell’s suspension from three games to two, I’m already seeing instant adjustments from friends and colleagues on Twitter about ESPN Fantasy’s No. 2 running back scorer from last season rising back to the top. My thinking on Bell staying first was simple: no teams have September byes and I felt confident I could draft him first overall and still build a competent roster for the first month, perhaps using his new backup DeAngelo Williams in his place.
Now, after the league announcement Tuesday afternoon, it’s only a two-week absence, which doesn’t seem like much to me. Perhaps that’s the dividing line for many to select him ahead of Eddie Lacy, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch or anyone else first overall. To me, that line, and it’s impossible to truly define, was between three games and four. After all, don’t we assume many running backs will miss a few games at some point, like Arian Foster? With Bell, we at least knew which games they were going to be.
Bell emerged as a fantasy superstar in his second NFL season, rushing for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns and catching an impressive 83 receptions for 854 yards and three more scores. In ESPN standard scoring, six quarterbacks and Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray were the only ones to better Bell’s 272 points. However, in PPR formats, Bell was second merely to wide receiver teammate Antonio Brown. That’s it. Murray has since bolted the awesome Cowboys' offensive line for a lesser one and more backfield competition with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the quarterback position is plenty deep. Running back depth, reliable and special, is hard to find.
Former Carolina Panthers underachiever Williams -- except for that glorious 2008 campaign -- remains in line for increased and relevant production for the first two weeks, as the Steelers face Jimmy Garoppolo and the New England Patriots in Week 1 and host the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. Neither is a great matchup for a running back to start with. Bell returns for Week 3 at the St. Louis Rams, also quite challenging. I can’t say Williams was someone I was necessarily targeting even with Bell slated to miss three games, as he’s 32. He missed several games last season due to injury and hasn’t been productive in a while. If you select Bell, try to handcuff his backup later. Bell is fully recovered from a knee injury, but in the NFL, you never know.
Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say if Bell wasn’t dealing with any missed games, most fantasy owners would view him as the top pick for standard and PPR. With Tuesday’s positive news, now fantasy owners need to think a bit, perhaps a bit more than before. As for me, my mind was made up and I can’t move Bell any higher than first!