Beginning the fifth season of his career, Le’Veon Bell has logged only 51 games for Pittsburgh, including the playoffs.
The best could be yet to come.
Production and potential, with his blend of rushing and receiving skills, put Bell in first place in The Associated Press position rankings for running backs. In the first edition last week, Tom Brady was the consensus pick for the quarterbacks. In voting by Pro Football Hall of Fame member James Lofton and 10 AP football writers, Bell just beat Ezekiel Elliott of Dallas for top billing.
Bell had six first-place votes Friday to Elliott’s five.
“He’s got great vision, and he’s got great patience when he hits the hole,” said Minnesota defensive coordinator George Edwards, whose team is preparing to play Bell and the Steelers on Sunday. “He’s able to make a lot of people miss, whether it’s in line, whether it’s outside on the perimeter or whether it’s getting to the second level. So he’s very explosive when he gets his hands on the ball.”
Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy was third. He was followed by Arizona’s David Johnson, Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman, Tennessee’s DeMarco Murray, San Diego’s Melvin Gordon, Chicago’s Jordan Howard, Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette.
Last year, in only 12 games, Bell rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns on 261 carries, and caught a whopping 75 passes for 616 yards and two scores. His average of 157 yards from scrimmage per game was the highest in the NFL.
“Head and shoulders, the best all-around back in the league,” said the AP’s Josh Dubow, based in Northern California.
The ho-hum season opener for Bell, with 47 yards on 13 touches against Cleveland, did not deter the panel.
“He has the track record and dual-threat athleticism that makes him capable of taking over games, and topping this list,” wrote the AP’s Dennis Waszak Jr., who’s based in New York.
Bell has twice been suspended by the NFL for violating the drug policy, for a total of five games lost. He was absent three times as a rookie in 2013 because of an injury to his right foot, and he missed the last eight games in 2015 because of ligament damage in his right knee.
“Imagine what he could do if he stays on the field all season,” said the AP’s Denver-based Arnie Stapleton, who gave Bell a second-place vote behind Elliott.
With more time, Elliott could easily become the consensus favorite. With 1,631 yards for the Cowboys in 2016, he was just the fifth rookie to win the rushing title since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970. Elliott totaled 1,994 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns in 15 games.
“Could hold the top spot for years and years,” wrote the AP’s Howard Fendrich, who’s based in Washington.
Johnson, who will miss most of the season after dislocating his left wrist in the opener, could have held the top spot had he not been hurt.
“He’s so good the Cardinals may not win a game without him,” said the AP’s Rob Maaddi, based in Philadelphia.
While the top six running backs clearly emerged from the voting, the panel produced a wide range of candidates for the final spots in filling out the rest of the ballot. Miami’s Jay Ajayi and Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt also received strong consideration.
Fournette led a strong rookie class featuring Hunt, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. Lofton ranked Fournette, the fourth overall pick in the draft out of LSU who rushed for 100 yards in his debut with the Jaguars, third behind Elliott and Bell.
“Hands are much better than anyone thought,” Lofton wrote.
EDITOR’S NOTE — The Associated Press is ranking the top 10 players at a different position every week of the NFL season, based on votes by Pro Football Hall of Famer James Lofton and AP football writers Simmi Buttar, Dave Campbell, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow, Howard Fendrich, Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton, Teresa M. Walker, Dennis Waszak Jr., and Barry Wilner. This feature will move on Fridays.