A day after departing arguably the worst team in the NFL, Le'Veon Bell has landed on arguably the best, reportedly signing with the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs. Typically, the addition of any 28-year-old running back doesn't make big waves in 2020. But this is different, partially because of what Bell brings to the table and partially because of what the Chiefs already have in tow. Now come the key questions: What does Bell's arrival mean for star rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire? And, more importantly, what does it mean for the Chiefs' chances of repeating as Super Bowl champs?
Let's start with the Chiefs' backfield, since Bell presumably demanded something at least close to a starting role while narrowing his brief free agent tour. Edwards-Helaire, K.C.'s versatile first-round pick, has been as good as advertised, averaging more than 100 scrimmage yards per game and jumping out to a 1,100-yard rushing pace. It's also been very apparent that he's the Chiefs' workhorse.
Edwards-Helaire's 81 carries through five games rank first among rookies and seventh among all NFL RBs, with only 17 total carries going to other Chiefs backs (not including two for fullback Anthony Sherman). That means he's been handling 82 percent of K.C.'s RB carries. The passing game has looked similar. Edwards-Helaire's 27 targets and 17 catches rank fourth on the team behind Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins; while other Chiefs RBs have combined for just 11 targets and six catches, meaning the rookie has accounted for 71 percent of Chiefs RB targets and 73 percent of Chiefs RB catches.
How does that change with Bell in the mix? One thing's for sure: Andy Reid, who has historically valued a RB rotation with the Chiefs though not in his past with the Eagles, isn't going to completely shove Edwards-Helaire to the sidelines. This is still the rookie's show. There's a reason, remember, that Bell hit the street less than two years after inking a $52 million deal with the Jets. If he ever returns to his old Pittsburgh Steelers form -- emphasis on "if" -- it'll assuredly still be weeks before he commands a majority of touches out of Reid's backfield. Even then, we could be looking at a very similar split in touches to what the Chiefs used during the Super Bowl 2019 season.
Senior Fantasy Editor Chris Towers has a less rosy evaluation of Edwards-Helaire's fantasy outlook moving forward:
"Edwards-Helaire is likely to play better moving forward than he has so far, if only because he has yet to score on any of his 10 carries inside the 10-yard line," Towers wrote. "It's entirely possible that he loses those touches but doesn't lose much Fantasy value because he becomes a more efficient player overall, while Bell gets enough work to be in the discussion for starting most weeks. That might limit Edwards-Helaire's ultimate ceiling — those dreams of him being a top-five back might be in the past for good, now — but it wouldn't make him irrelevant.
"The problem comes if Bell starts taking more work than that — especially in the passing game or near the goal line. And, given Bell's track record, the passing game seems like the most obvious spot for him to replace Edwards-Helaire. Even last season, Bell was pretty much an every-down back, rarely coming off the field for any reason. If the Chiefs trust Bell more as a blocker — which seems like a reasonable assumption — he could fairly quickly become the preferred back in the passing game, a valuable role for any back.
"And that would really put the onus on Edwards-Helaire to improve as a runner, especially near the goal line — 45% of his Fantasy points have come from the passing game so far. If the Chiefs also view Edwards-Helaire's struggles as a problem in short-yardage situations, things could get pretty dicey pretty quickly, and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Bell could have a renaissance and usurp Edwards-Helaire as the primary option here."
A good reference point might be in Cleveland, where the Browns have successfully found work for both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb is now hurt, of course, and Chiefs fans -- or Edwards-Helaire fantasy owners -- can't expect a Reid- and Patrick Mahomes-led offense to match Kevin Stefanski's run-game volume. But the division of touches there is probably a reasonable expectation for how the Chiefs ideally envision Bell contributing: Through five games, Chubb and Hunt have logged almost exactly a 55-44 split of carries, with the latter getting slightly more action as a pass catcher.
Imagine, then, a 60-40 split for Edwards-Helaire and Bell, which might even be generous in Bell's favor considering how slowly Reid incorporated a familiar veteran like LeSean McCoy in 2019. Had Edwards-Helaire started 2020 with that amount of work, he would've still racked up about 59 carries by now -- putting him squarely in the ballpark of guys like Chubb, Chris Carson, Devin Singletary, Darrell Henderson and James Conner. Is that a drop-off? Sure, but hardly an astronomical one, especially in the Chiefs offense.
Now, as for Bell's impact on K.C. as a whole? There's nothing regressive about that. Anyone with working eyes should've known prior to the RB's addition that the Chiefs were among the AFC favorites. They weren't pretty in a Week 4 win over the Patriots, and they outright lost to the Raiders in a Week 5 upset, but at 4-1, with Reid, Mahomes, Hill, Kelce and one of the most explosive lineups in the league, they are the rare defending champ with the depth to repeat. And Bell fits just about perfectly with the offense.
Edwards-Helaire might give you big-play ability as both a runner and receiver, but Bell is more polished in both areas. With three different 75-catch seasons under his belt, the latter shouldn't need much time to become a favorite outlet for Mahomes. Bell's size (6-1, 225) also gives the Chiefs a much more imposing short-yardage option than Edwards-Helaire (5-7, 207).
In short, this union pretty clearly benefits all parties: Bell gets his best supporting cast since his All-Pro Pittsburgh days, Edwards-Helaire gets less wear and tear for the playoff run, and an already-potent contender gets a battle-tested veteran capable of filling in as a lead ball-carrier.
If Reid can't find ways to restore Bell's best qualities and help lead the Chiefs back to the promised land in the process, then, frankly, no one can. Worst-case scenario, Bell can't find a steady role and Edwards-Helaire simply maintains his grip on RB1 duties before the new guy hits free agency in 2021. More likely: K.C. watches comfortably as Mahomes and a team built on offensive wizardry pile on the points in a second straight bid for a title.