After the New York Jets released former All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell on Tuesday, there was speculation that the Kansas City Chiefs would be interested. That speculation quickly turned to reality, as the Chiefs signed Bell to a one-year deal Thursday evening.
Chiefs fans are very familiar with Bell. He spent most of his career wreaking havoc on their favorite team as the running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, he’s helping Kansas City in their quest to win a second-straight Super Bowl.
I have five things to know about the newest Chiefs running back:
1. The lackluster performance as a New York Jet
In the 17 games he played in a Jets’ uniform, Bell averaged an uninspiring 3.3 yards per carry while only scoring four total times. His production in New York was drastically different than his numbers in Pittsburgh: he averaged 35 rushing yards per game less than in his time as a Steeler, and 14 less receiving yards per contest.
In 2019, the Jets scored the second-fewest points in the league — and so far this season, they’ve scored the least. New York’s offense as a whole has been incompetent, and that extends to their inability to open rushing lanes for Bell.
Le'Veon Bell was expected to gain just 3.7 rush yards/carry since joining the Jets in 2019, based on our Expected Rush Yards model.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 14, 2020
This also ranked last among RBs with 200+ carries. https://t.co/zWVjiKT3uu
Objectively, Bell has not been in a good situation for individual production.
2. Positional versatility
Bell is a running back, but the aspect of his game that makes him such a special player is his ability to line up as a wide receiver as well.
In the four full seasons he played in Pittsburgh, he split out in a wide receiver position for at least 13% of his snaps each year. This includes being in the slot on the outside. The Jets didn’t utilize him as much in that role; he only saw 9% of his snaps lined up as a receiver while he was there.
For comparison’s sake, the Chiefs did show a willingness to line up running back Damien Williams in a wide receiver position — but only for 8% of his offensive snaps in 2019. This season, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has split out wide on 9% of his snaps.
Bell’s comfort in lining up out wide allows the Chiefs to create mismatches depending on how the defense deploys their personnel in response to Bell.
3. Pass-catching ability
Lining up as a wide receiver doesn’t do much unless you can consistently get open and catch passes efficiently. Bell absolutely checks those boxes.
In his last three full seasons as a Steeler, Bell was targeted at least 94 times each year. He averaged nearly seven yards per target in total over that span. That is a remarkable rate for the amount of volume he saw. There are only seven running backs with seven or more yards per target this season, and that’s only in a sample size of four or five games.
He also has reliable hands. He has only one drop in his last 38 targets, while making a few impressive downfield catches in that span.
4. How he fits into the offense
This season, Edwards-Helaire has taken 66% of possible offensive snaps for the Chiefs. That means that another running back — or no running back at all — is on the field for 34% of the offense’s plays.
That 34% has mostly been taken up by running back Darrel Williams, who has been primarily used as the third-down back. The appeal of Williams is his experience with pass blocking over a rookie like Edwards-Helaire — but Williams doesn’t give the offense much upside as a receiving threat in those situations.
Bell is not only a pass-catching weapon for third downs, he is also an impressive blocker. He doesn’t get credit for how big and physical he can be, and that shows when he stays in to pass protect.
He should be an improvement over Williams in every aspect of being a third-down running back, so that will likely be his initial role while Edwards-Helaire takes the early down work. That being said, Bell could start to penetrate the rookie’s snap count as he learns the offense.
5. His fit in the locker room
There is an unfair narrative that Bell could be a bad fit in a locker room. I believe we’ll quickly understand how untrue that is.
Bell’s disputes with the Steelers came down to wanting a long-term contract. Instead of signing him to one, Pittsburgh tagged him for two straight seasons — which led to him sitting out the 2018 season and eventually being granted a release from the team. Players want security, and Bell strategized to force a team’s hand in giving him a big contract.
He eventually got it from the Jets, but the team has since been identified as completely dysfunctional. There are reports that head coach Adam Gase never wanted Bell in the first place, and the general manager that did sign Bell was fired soon after the contract was dealt. He may have pushed for his release from New York, but why wouldn’t he? A player’s athletic prime can only last for so long, and it would have went to waste with a poorly-managed franchise.
The 28-year-old, three-time All-Pro running back has a great opportunity to change how some members of the public perceive him.