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Who Should I Draft No. 1 in Fantasy Football: David Johnson or Le'Veon Bell?

You have the No. 1 pick in your fantasy draft. Should you take David Johnson or Le'Veon Bell? The first in our SI/4for4 Debate Series.

In the Debate Series of the SI/4for4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit, two top fantasy football minds will take opposing sides of a decision that many fantasy owners will face during their drafts, and make the case for their guy. In this installment, 4for4’s John Paulsen and SI’s Michael Beller debate David Johnson vs. Le’Veon Bell.

David Johnson, RB, Cardinals (ADP: 1.33)

John Paulsen makes the case for Johnson over Bell...

All due respect to the extremely talented Le’Veon Bell (and the esteemed Michael Beller), if I somehow land the No. 1 pick in my fantasy draft, I’m taking David Johnson regardless of the scoring system.

When comparing Bell’s 18 games over the last two years to Johnson’s 2016 campaign, a few things jump out…

Let’s start here: Bell has only played 18 games in the last two seasons. Through a combination of injury and two drug-related suspensions, he has missed an eye-popping 44% of his team’s regular season games in the last two years. Thankfully, Bell isn’t suspended to start the 2017 season, but one wonders if another shoe will drop that’ll cause him to miss more time. Meanwhile, Johnson has a clean bill of health (and has kept his nose clean), playing in all 32 games in his two-year career.

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Johnson averaged 23.3 touches for 132 total yards and an astounding 1.25 touchdowns per game in 2016, which equates to an average of 20.7 fantasy points in standard formats and 25.7 points in PPR leagues. This is higher than Bell’s averages (18.3 and 23.8, respectively) in both formats. Bell has the edge in total yardage, but Johnson is a touchdown machine. The return of Martavis Bryant and the presence of Antonio Brown should keep the focus off of Bell, but when the Steelers get into the red zone, Bell is just one of three great options at the team’s disposal. This will limit his usage and his upside.

In Arizona, Johnson is far and away the best red zone weapon for the Cardinals. Last year, Johnson averaged 4.2 red zone “looks” (targets plus carries), which dwarfed Bell’s 3.1 red zone looks per game over the last two seasons. The ratio is even more extreme when we only examine looks inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, an area of the field I’ve dubbed the “crimson zone.” Here, Johnson has seen 2.4 looks per game compared to just 1.4 for Bell. So even though Bell has a slight edge in total touches (26.3 vs. 23.3), a greater percentage of Johnson’s touches are more valuable.

Finally, I should mention the proverbial elephant in the room. The Steelers have slapped Bell with the franchise tag, and while he’s not planning to hold out into the season, he didn’t report to camp on the first day. The longer he’s absent from camp, the more worried I get about his conditioning and football shape. This is anecdotal, but pesky training camp injuries seem to pop up when players hold out.

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At the end of the day, I’m nearly as excited to get the No. 2 pick as I am to get the first overall pick, because Bell is a great fantasy asset. But if given the choice between the two, I’m drafting Johnson without hesitation.

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Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers (ADP: 1.67)

Michael Beller makes the case for Bell over Johnson…

The way I see it, the only argument that gets Johnson over Bell is the injury factor. That’s not a knock on Johnson, and Bell’s history—he tore his MCL in November 2015—is absolutely relevant when determining his fantasy value. You know what else is, though? His dominant 34-game run over the last three seasons, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the banner days of two of the biggest fantasy stars in recent memory.

Bell turned into the prototypical back for the modern NFL in 2014, his second season in the league. In the three seasons beginning with that campaign, including the injury-shortened 2015 season, Bell has rushed for 3,185 yards, caught 182 passes for 1,606 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. Add it all up, and Bell has put up 18.15 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues over his last 34 contests. In real-life numbers, Bell has rushed for 93.7 yards, pulled down 5.4 receptions for 47.2 yards and hit paydirt 0.7 times per game in the last three seasons.

To compare, Arian Foster put up 19.69 standard-league points per game across 45 games with the Texans from 2010 to ’12. In those three seasons, Foster ran for 4,264 yards, hauled in 159 passes for 1,438 yards, found the end zone a ridiculous 47 times and carried countless fantasy teams to championships. That’s what you’re looking for with the first overall pick, and I like Bell’s chances to be that broad set of shoulders more than Johnson’s.

Of course, Foster picked up a ton of ground on Bell in the touchdown department, aided by an NFL that hadn’t yet completely transitioned to a pass-first league. Some quick math based on our earlier work shows that Bell totaled 140.9 yards from scrimmage in an average game the last three seasons. When Foster was at the peak of his powers, he averaged 126.7 yards from scrimmage per game. We have to go even further back in the annals of NFL history to find the back who last racked up an average 140 total yards per game across 34 weeks before Bell did it from 2014 through ’16.

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And the name probably sounds awfully familiar: Marshall Faulk, the patron saint of fantasy championships. A football demigod who helped forge the prototype mold in which Bell came off the assembly line. It’s only fitting that he was the last back to surpass what Bell has done the last three seasons. From 1999 through 2002, Faulk’s first three seasons as the linchpin of the Greatest Show on Turf era St. Louis Rams, the back totaled 4,122 rushing yards and 2,643 receiving yards, good for 153.8 yards from scrimmage per game. In other words, Bell is the closest thing to peak Faulk the league has seen this century, and yes, that includes LaDainian Tomlinson, who never averaged 140.7 total yards per game over a 34-game stretch.

Bell and Johnson are both do-it-all backs at the center of fast-paced, high-powered offenses. Bell is in a better overall environment with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant around him, and the increased opportunity for two-point conversions created by Mike Tomlin’s coaching style cannot be overlooked. As great as these two players are, though, environment isn’t going to matter quite as strongly as it will for lesser players. These two would be worthy of the top overall pick, regardless of where they played. Deciding between them comes down to one question: Do you prefer Johnson’s clean injury sheet, or Bell’s Faulk-and-Foster-esque track record? I’ll take the latter without hesitation.