Editor's note: This column was written prior to Bell's suspension being reduced to two games. In Eric's reaction to that development, he obviously feels that Bell is even more of a slam dunk as the No. 1 overall pick this year.
It's understandable that later this summer fantasy owners will shy away from selecting Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell with the highest first-round pick -- or even any pick at all. After all, Bell was suspended this spring for an off-field issue from a year ago, and losing any key player for three games -- if it remains at that number -- can be frustrating and threaten a fantasy playoff berth.
Then again, I don't think most people realize just how impressive Bell was during the 2014 season, how those numbers can and should be duplicated, and how many other first-round running backs will either disappoint or miss games for physical or other reasons in 2015. We know Bell is out three games, but it's the best time for it to happen -- if there is a best time -- and it's not as if this cannot be overcome!
The main reason I'm willing to not necessarily overlook Bell's planned and unfortunate absence for September, but instead deal with it and still select him first overall, is because of just how great he ought to be in the other 13 games. I mean, he was great last year, right? Sure, Bell is an injury risk because every running back is, even the other ones we'll all be considering as first-round options, but that's the point. Nobody is really safe anymore. It's certainly possible that Jamaal Charles or Marshawn Lynch or any other running back plays in all 16 games and performs like a champ, but if Bell plays similarly to 2014, they won't be as valuable from October on. After all, in PPR formats, where Bell rocked because he hauled in 83 passes, he outscored Charles by 118 points!
And therein lays the crux of my argument: Bell is just better, and it's not as though we're leaving an open, active roster spot for the games he misses. You can and will be able to replace him.
Last season, Bell and then-Dallas Cowboys monster DeMarco Murray were the top statistical options not playing quarterback, but Murray has bolted for a team with a lesser offensive line and more competition for touches. Bell, meanwhile, invites former Carolina Panthers underachiever -- except for one glorious season a million years ago -- DeAngelo Williams to handle the main running back chores for a few weeks, and then crawl back to the bench, where he doesn't figure to be heard from. There's no competition. The Steelers will again rely heavily on Bell, and when the other first-round running backs are already dealing with sore ankles and other ailments, he'll be fresh for a Week 4 Thursday night tilt against the Baltimore Ravens. Everyone else on that field will be coming off a short work week.
Bell's new teammate Williams, in fact, makes for a pretty nice three-week fill-in based on his own opportunity, as the Steelers still possess a top pass unit and reliable offensive line. There are no bye weeks in September, folks. It's frankly the easiest time to replace an injured or suspended player, because the available pool is so deep, and if you choose to select Bell, then you don't really have to plan the rest of your draft around his absence, but can at least make sure you're not bereft of depth for the first month. Then again, who is struggling with depth in September? Perhaps you'll have to opt for a lesser option than usual for your second running back or flex spot, but I tend to load up on running backs in the draft regardless of who my top choices are. Leave a draft with six running backs, even if one of them misses a few weeks early, and you're still set up nicely to replace whoever cannot play.
Ultimately, it comes down to planning ahead and banking on production, and while I admit it's a bit unorthodox to commit the first overall pick to a player with a negative already applied to him, this isn't a normal season, either. There is no rock-solid No. 1 choice -- not like 2014, when Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was a lock, and then proceeded to play in precisely one contest. There's even more depth at quarterback and wide receiver than normal, ruling these positions out for the top spot.
I'm going running back in the first round, even if it's first overall. I think Le'Veon Bell is the best player in fantasy, and I don't think it's going to be a challenge to overcome his September absence, and still qualify for meaningful late-December games.