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Alongside Eddie Lacy and Gio Bernard, Le'Veon Bell and Zac Stacy packed quite the fantasy punch in their rookie seasons. Now routinely going in the second round of initial 12-team drafts (Bell ADP: 16.2, Stacy: 21.3), expectations are high for the sophomore rushers. If faced with a draft day dilemma picking between the two, who should you sign on the dotted line? Fanalysts Brad Evans and Andy Behrens exchange uppercuts.
The Big Noise comes out throwing: Written off by many fanatics after he experienced a midfoot sprain early in the preseason, Bell slipped to the double-digit rounds in most 12-team drafts last August. However, once unleashed in Week 4, he delivered stellar production surpassing legendary rusher Franco Harris for most combined yards by a first-year rusher in franchise history (1,268). His subsequent fantasy points per game marks in standard and PPR leagues ranked top-10 among RBs. The dude kept the competition's head ringing, rewarding investors with a handsome profit.
Despite his standout 2013, several critics, including Behrens, continue to doubt Bell's long-term potential. They insist his vanilla 3.52 yards per carry is a harbinger of mediocrity to come. But don't pin the plods completely on the youngster. Pittsburgh's offensive line, once again ravaged by injuries and limited by inexperience, ranked poorly in run-blocking, checking in at No. 20 in the category according to Pro Football Focus. Essentially, without many favorable lanes to run through, Bell made the most of an unattractive situation, which made his contributions all the more laudable. He's not Trent Richardson revisited. He's a gun-safe in human form – strongly built, hard to crack and filled with firepower. Perceptions about him being a contact-only runner are terribly off-base. Last year, he forced missed tackles on 35.8 percent of his touches, ranking him in the vicinity of Reggie Bush (38.6) and Matt Forte (37.2) and well ahead of Stacy (26.6).
And let's not overblow Pittsburgh's acquisition of LeGarrette Blount. Mike Tomlin has made it well known he is committed to Bell as the featured back. In Mike Munchak's newly installed zone-blocking scheme, a system that greatly benefits the hard-cutting, downhill runner Le'Veon is and fits the Steelers' current O-line personnel, he should easily exceed 300 touches, possibly maxing out in the 330-350 range. Blount, meanwhile, is only expected to net 6-8 touches per game. Big friggin' deal.
I have no beef with Stacy. In fact, I've expressed my adoration toward him on several occasions and I too believe the buzz about Tre Mason is unwarranted. Undoubtedly, he will be St. Louis' primary back. Still, Bell is a superior receiver, tied to a better pass game, who provides more statistical punch, particularly in PPR formats. He also doesn't have to face Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco multiple times.
Enough with the Le'Veon doomsday scenarios. The second-year rusher is a trustworthy RB1 and, after Lacy, the sophomore rusher you want.
The Reverend tosses a counter-punch: If you can't appreciate a kid who can break off runs like this against dominant defenses, then I'm not sure why you watch football. And then the following week, Stacy gave us this tackle-breaking run-of-the-year candidate against Tennessee, and we were all smitten.
Stacy somehow didn't capture the lead-back role for the Rams until October of last year, but he was a beast when he took over. As a rookie, he rushed for 969 yards over the season's final 12 games. He enters 2014 as the unrivaled, high-volume workhorse in St. Louis. Tre Mason is a legit talent, sure, but he's also very much an unfinished player, not ready for a featured role. Stacy, in my eyes, is a sound investment near the top of a fantasy draft.
As for Bell, well ... am I really the only person who detects a Trent Richardson vibe here?
I really liked Le'Veon last summer, having watched him steamroll the Big Ten the prior season. But he was a notably inefficient runner in his first NFL campaign. Bell gained just 3.5 yards per carry last year — slightly worse than Richardson's rookie average — but a respectable touchdown total (8) masked an otherwise unimpressive season. Bell had five games last season with 20 or more carries, yet he only topped 100 rushing yards once. Stacy, like Bell, saw 20-plus carries in five games. These were his rushing totals in those contests: 134, 127, 62, 133, 104.
When you feed Stacy, he eats. When you feed Bell, he kinda just plays with his food.
If you want to dismiss Pittsburgh's signing of LeGarrette Blount, that's fine — Blount has averaged 5.0 YPC in two different seasons for two different teams, but fine. And if you want to ignore the Steelers' offseason flirtation with Maurice Jones-Drew, that's OK, too. Personally, I'm concerned that the team was looking for something more than a change-of-pace back. My worry is that if Bell can't be better than he was last year, Blount will take a significant share of the backfield touches.