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Scouting Jets running back Le’Veon Bell

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NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With the new league year underway, we’re going to break down each of the Jets’ new additions in detail. We continue today with former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.

The 27-year old Bell is listed at 6’1” and 225 pounds and was a second round pick out of Michigan State in 2013. He’s a two-time all-pro and three time pro-bowler who has rushed for over a thousand yards three times and scored 42 touchdowns in five seasons. The Jets signed Bell, who sat out the entire 2018 season, to a four-year contract worth a maximum of $61 million.

Background

Bell was just a two-star recruit out of high school but managed to earn a scholarship to Michigan State. He rushed for 605 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman and 948 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophmore before a breakout junior year saw him rack up almost 1,800 yards on the ground. He also caught 78 passes, including over 30 in each of his last two years.

Bell decided to declare for the 2013 NFL draft and, having been a projected day two pick, was selected by the Steelers in the second round.

His rookie year saw him miss the first three games, but he had an immediate positive impact and ended up rushing for 860 yards and eight touchdowns, adding 45 receptions. However, he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry.

In 2014, he broke out with an all-pro season as he racked up a career high 1,361 rushing yards and caught 83 passes. He led all NFL running backs in receiving yards and yards per reception and scored 11 total touchdowns.

2015 saw him miss the first couple of games due to a suspension and then he missed the second half of the season due to an injury. He was productive, but limited to just six appearances.

In 2016, Bell was again suspended but returned to rush for almost 1,300 yards in 12 games and also caught 75 passes. He then had two monster games in the postseason with 167 yards and two scores against Miami and 170 against Kansas City. Unfortunately, an injury knocked him out of the AFC title game though.

2017 saw Bell register career highs in pass receptions (85) and rushing touchdowns (nine). He again had just under 1,300 yards and before posting 155 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in the postseason loss to the Jaguars.

A high-profile holdout in 2018 saw Bell sit out the entire season and he became a free agent when the Steelers opted not to tag him for 2019. The Jets secured his services by signing him to a four-year deal last week.

Now let’s take a look at what Bell brings to the table, divided into categories.

Measurables/Athleticism

Bell is powerfully built and, although he’s a taller back, runs with a compact style and low center of gravity. It’s obvious from his film what a great athlete he is, although his combine numbers were somewhat underwhelming. He only ran a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, his vertical was poor and his broad jump and short shuttle were mediocre. His three cone drill (6.75) and bench press (24 reps) were impressive though.

Usage

One of the main arguments you’ll hear for signing Bell to such a big contract is that he’s not just a running back. He’ll also line up out wide or in the slot several times per game and has shown an ability to be productive in the passing game when he does so.

Bell has also fielded the snap in wildcat packages from time to time, including in a 2015 win over the Chargers when the Steelers opted to give Bell the ball to score the winning touchdown as time expired rather than kick a chip shot field goal to send the game to overtime.

Running Ability

While Bell’s ability to do things other than run the football is what makes him so valuable, his running ability is arguably as good as anyone else in the league.

Bell makes quick cuts, has burst and acceleration and is elusive in space. If you watch his highlight reel, you’ll see him spinning out of tackles, reversing his field and hurdling over defenders in the open field. However, he also possesses a vicious stiff arm and can run with power:

Bell has averaged almost five yards per carry in three of his five seasons, although he doesn’t boost that total with a bunch of long runs. In fact, he’s only had five runs of 40 yards or more in his career so far.

He is capable of being a workhorse back, having carried at least 30 times in five regular season games and one playoff game. He has rushed for 100 yards on 18 occasions (including two 200-yard games).

Instincts/Vision

Bell’s trademark is probably his patient running style, as he has the confidence to slow down behind the line of scrimmage and wait for a running lane to develop:

It’s his unparalleled vision - coupled with his quick feet and shiftiness - that enables this style to be so effective. What sets him apart is that he doesn’t just see the hole developing in front of him, but also anticipates what’s ahead of him and sees beyond that to read what’s happening at the second level:

Interestingly, Bell’s vision was described as “limited” by experts after he declared for the 2013 draft.

Short Yardage

Bell has a nose for the goal line and has channeled his ability to find running lanes into 19 rushing touchdowns from inside the three-yard line (out of a total of 35 rushing touchdowns).

32 of his 42 career touchdowns have come from inside the 10 yard line, including 27 on the ground.

Receiving Threat

Statistically, Bell has been one of the best pass catching backs in the NFL over the course of his career. He led all running backs in receptions in 2017 and has two 100-yard receiving games.

Like any elite back, Bell is able to rack up plenty of yardage on dump-off passes and checkdowns that allow him to work in space:

However, he’s also possesses some advanced route running abilities, both out of the backfield and when split out wide or in the slot:

As noted earlier, Bell has been effective when employed out of the slot. He’s used as a possession receiver in this role, exploiting mismatches on short-to-intermediate routes. He has an overall catch rate of 83 percent, but his catch rate when operating from the slot is also over 80 percent.

Bell hasn’t been used much as a downfield threat but that could be something the Jets might look to exploit more than the Steelers ever did:

Hands

While Bell’s catch rate is solid, it’s boosted by plenty of simple dump offs. He is also not immune to dropped passes, although he’s only averaged about four per season:

Bell does have better pass-catching abilities than most backs, particularly with his ability to catch passes when tightly covered. He can also make spectacular catches like this one:

Fumbles

Fumbles weren’t a problem for Bell early in his career as he only had one in his first three seasons. However, he had seven in his last two seasons.

As Bell became more and more confident in his ability to hesitate before hitting the hole, you’d think he’d be susceptible to having the ball knocked away. However, a review of the fumbles he had suggests he usually protected the ball well as he hit the hole or went through contact, but it was at the end of the play, perhaps as he was fighting for more yardage, where he had a few ripped away from him:

Blocking

Blocking is another area where the book on Bell when he first entered the league was that he was inconsistent but actually he offers more than most other backs in that role. In 2015, for example, he stayed in to block 89 times and only gave up two pressures. He’s experienced at picking up the blitz, quick to recognize pressure and not afraid to step up and hit a blitzer. He can get moved off his spot sometimes though.

Here’s a play that illustrates this as he anticipates the unblocked rusher and is able to get enough of a hit on him to buy the quarterback time to get the throw off without being able to prevent the pressure altogether:

Bell has had several penalties for illegal blocks of some description, including a few chop blocks and face masks.

Special Teams

Bell has played sparingly on special teams at the pro level and probably won’t with the Jets unless it’s in some kind of emergency return situation. In college, he returned 11 kick-offs, but for just 219 yards.

Attitude/Demeanor

Bell’s on-field discipline can be an issue at times as he has seven 15-yard penalties in his career, including one for taunting, one for unsportsmanlike conduct and one for unnecessary roughness. He’s also had three false starts.

Off the field, Bell has been a controversial character over the course of his career so there are obvious concerns over how he’ll handle the spotlight in New York.

He was suspended after a DUI/marijuana possession arrest with a teammate in 2015 and then again in the following season due to a failed drug test.

Then there’s the whole contract dispute which ended in an acrimonious fallout with some of his teammates, coaches and people in the front office. The Jets have tried to “holdout-proof” his deal so there won’t be a repeat.

There were also times in 2017 where some people suggested he was coasting and perhaps putting in a less-than-100 percent effort on some of his assignments. This was noticeable in pass protection at times. Hopefully, he’ll be motivated to give his all now that he’s been signed to a contract he’s happy with and feels respected.

Injuries

Injuries are perhaps less of an immediate concern than how long it might take Bell to shake off any rust following a year out of the league. Despite some media rumor-mongering about a gain in weight, Bell claims to have remained in shape and is hopeful that taking the year to recharge his batteries will actually mean he feels fresher than before his year off.

The main injury concern from Bell’s past was that he ended up on injured reserve in 2015 following an MCL tear in November. Bell had surgery on his MCL and PCL after the season and obviously followed it up with two monster years, so this doesn’t appear to be an ongoing issue.

Prior to that, a foot sprain in his rookie preseason meant that he missed his first three games. At the end of the 2016 season, a groin strain in the AFC divisional round rendered him unable to play in the second half of the AFC title game.

Scheme Fit

The Jets are expected to run a zone blocking system, which should suit Bell having thrived in one with the Steelers.

However, there’s a school of thought that Bell’s unorthodox patient running style will not be as effective if the run blocking ahead of him is poor. If he’s waiting for a block that never develops or players aren’t sustaining their initial block for long enough to enable him to pick his spots that could prove to be the case.

Hopefully, the addition of Kelechi Osemele is a good first step towards developing an offensive line that sustains their blocks well and can open some lanes for Bell.

Bell is also a good fit for the Jets’ passing game and could contribute as a safety valve for Sam Darnold as well as a possession option out of the slot and in blitz pick-up.

Conclusions

It remains to be seen whether missing a year will benefit or harm Bell over the next few seasons, but his inclusion should definitely bring a different dimension to the Jets’ offense.

Bell is a dynamic talent who will produce as much as, if not more, in the passing game than any of the other workhorse backs around the league. However, it’s his bread and butter - running the football - where he can make a big difference for the Jets.

Whether or not he’s being paid too much is irrelevant now. What’s clear is that the Jets needed to add some elite talent to their offense and that will hopefully be exactly what Bell provides them with.