Ryan McDowell (@RyanMc23): Week Seven is here and brings with it the Pittsburgh Steelers bye week. This is an important date for fantasy players not only because many of us will be without Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in our fantasy lineups but also because it is the long-rumored time that holdout RB Le’Veon Bell would rejoin his team. While that hasn’t happened yet, we can be confident Bell will be back by Week Ten at the latest.
Conner, Bell’s replacement, is currently the RB5 and has more fantasy points through six games than Bell had in his first six contests a season ago. Bell’s inevitable return puts fantasy players in a tough spot. Should we be buying Bell? Selling Conner? Can the two co-exist or do you see the Steelers pulling the trigger and actually trading Bell to another team?
Rich Hribar (@LordReebs): I'm still skeptical that this all actually goes down before Week 10. I mean, what was the point of all this if he comes back right now instead of the minimum amount of games? But nothing about this situation has made any sense, anyway, so who am I to assume anything?
When he does come back, we're really flying in uncharted territory because this has never been a two-back system. Bell is a guy who has averaged 24.4 touches per game since entering the league. When he last went down, we saw DeAngelo Williams just plugged right in and take on that workload and we've seen the same thing from Conner this year. As of right now, Conner has 91.5% of the Pittsburgh backfield touches, that's the highest rate in the league, even ahead of Ezekiel Elliott. If and when Bell does return, we should expect some type of split, though, because Conner has 1) been that good and 2) Le'Veon will likely start out slow once again in terms of on-field performance. Remember a year ago, Bell only had one game with 100-yards from scrimmage through the first five games of the season, and that was with a full workload outside of the opening week. This is likely a scenario that plays out in the worst fashion for fantasy owners, where both guys are sort of ruined from being ceiling plays, but this offense is good enough to make both viable. Maybe they even do an Ingram/Kamara type of usage split with Bell as the primary receiving back. Then again, maybe I'm wrong and Bell just is the guy and they use him up.
I will say, that Conner has been a complete freeroll so far. He cost you nothing to acquire and no matter what happens, owners crushed that pick in drafts or even as a waiver wire pickup. If in a keeper league, you also have to hold Conner very tightly the rest of the way because we know he has top-5 upside and will easily be a first-round pick in drafts next summer when Bell inevitably moves on.
Raymond Summerlin (@RMSummerlin): I fall more on the holding Conner side here. Like Rich, I remain skeptical Bell will return before Week 10, I am not sure the Steelers will immediately put him back on the active roster, and it does not seem like he will get the workload we have come to expect even when he returns. That means Conner could keep this going for even the next few games after the bye and then still be a usable fantasy asset after that. As has been the case the last couple weeks, I am willing to trade Conner for a top-10 running back or wide receiver just to take out the risk, but short of that I want to ride out this situation.
Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat): One of Gmail's suggested replies was "I agree with you." Fortuitous, because I agree with you. Selling Conner is a fool's game at this point. What could you possibly get to make it worth it? The word is out. Conner might only be worth dimes on the dollar after Bell returns, but you will be getting pennies if you sell now. You might as well hold on, gamble Bell holds out until Week 10 and see where Conner takes you in Weeks 8 and 9 if he gets the chance. Even if Bell reports for Week 8, his workload figures to be very limited against the Browns.
By that same token, I would certainly approve of buying low on Bell if his owner has had enough. Offer a WR2 and an RB3, the textbook fantasy 2-for-1 heist.
Jesse Pantuosco (@JessePantuosco): I wish I had more wisdom to impart here, but I just don’t have a great feel for this. What a headache this situation has been from the very start. I understand what Bell is doing—he’s trying to preserve himself ahead of next year’s free agency by limiting his exposure. At the same time though, he’s basically punting a year of his prime while losing over $800,000 a week, which doesn’t seem like a very sound business strategy. Someone will inevitably pay him, but any leverage Bell may have had with Pittsburgh has gone out the window with the emergence of Conner, who is on pace for more touchdowns than Bell had last season. The best-case scenario for Bell would have been for Conner to face-plant but instead he’s been an absolute monster, averaging over 100 yards from scrimmage in his six games. I know Bell is regarded as a top-three running back in the league but with the way Conner is playing, how could you abandon him? I doubt it would be a 50/50 split but Conner is sure to occupy at least some role upon Bell’s return, especially early on as Le’Veon works back into playing shape. With Conner providing weekly RB1 production, I wouldn’t be in any rush to move him, at least not until we know the exact date of Bell’s return. And with Bell making a game of keeping us in the dark, that could be a while.