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The Jets’ Deal For Le’Veon Bell Makes Sense. We’re Surprised, Too.

In an era when NFL success is defined by passing, one New York team said goodbye to one of the most electrifying young receivers in league history, and the other decided to make a 27-year-old running back the centerpiece of its new offense.

Odell Beckham Jr. is out in New York football, and Le’Veon Bell is in. Bell’s move was nearly a year in the making, as he sat out the entire 2018 season in hopes of landing a long-term contract from a new team. It was assumed that he would pick a franchise on the precipice of winning a championship, but instead he chose the Jets, who went 4-12 last year and have a 21-year-old quarterback in Sam Darnold.

Can Bell, five seasons and 1,541 total touches into his career, still perform at a Hall of Fame level? Through 2016, it looked as if Bell may have been worse for all the wear from his historic rushing and receiving workload, but he actually rebounded in 2017, his last season.

When we last saw Bell, in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs for that 2017 season, he was the best player on the field. And the fact that Bell stopped the clock last year on his touches could work to the Jets’ benefit. According to my research last year at The Wall Street Journal, running backs typically maintain peak rushing efficiency through about career touch 2,400 (not including touches in the postseason). At Bell’s current per-game pace, that’s about 34 games (or two-plus seasons) away. So the Jets are making a good bet that Bell will earn his $35 million guaranteed on his four-year, $52.5 million deal — less than the Jets reportedly were prepared to pay linebacker Anthony Barr before he backed out of that deal to return to Minnesota.

The Jets seem to have needed Bell more than Bell needed the Jets. They were simply awful last year running the ball. The Jets’ play success when running on first and second down last year ranked 31st in the league, at just 31.8 percent, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. This meant that the Jets were routinely behind schedule in terms of down and distance, forcing Darnold to play uphill.

The Jets often put Sam Darnold in a tough spot

Among 2018 NFL quarterbacks, the greatest share of all dropbacks* that were on third down and long

Rank Player Team Total 3rd & Long Share
1 Lamar Jackson Ravens 203 40 19.7%
2 Sam Darnold Jets 459 89 19.4
3 Josh Rosen Cardinals 451 86 19.1
4 Ryan Tannehill Dolphins 315 60 19.1
5 Josh Allen Bills 396 71 17.9
6 Dak Prescott Cowboys 610 103 16.9
7 Alex Smith Redskins 369 61 16.5
8 Marcus Mariota Titans 407 67 16.5
9 Russell Wilson Seahawks 499 81 16.2
10 Deshaun Watson Texans 619 100 16.2

* Pass attempts and sacks

Based on a minimum of 170 total pass attempts

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Enter Bell, who in his previous two seasons had a 41.4 percent success rate on first and second down.

It’s may be surprising that Darnold, who posted mediocre numbers on the whole during his rookie year, could attract such a top free-agent receiving target at the peak of his ability. Darnold wasn’t Baker Mayfield last year. He struggled mightily, especially before missing three games with injury beginning in Week 10. But upon his return, Darnold was excellent — without receiving the fanfare that Baker Mayfield generated in the season’s second half. In weeks 14 through 17, the rookie from USC was actually was the top quarterback in football measured by Total QBR. And Darnold achieved this distinction despite being saddled with the least successful running game in football in that period.

Darnold and Bell could be well-matched. As a rookie, Darnold showed an ability to make plays on- and off-script.

“Darnold is going to be really good,” said Josh McCown, his backup and mentor last year. “Making plays in and out of structure is the key. He has that thing that Aaron Rodgers and a few guys have — an ability to get outside the pocket and make something happen when the play isn’t working. It’s a special gift.” McCown compares Darnold to Tony Romo. And Romo is among Darnold’s biggest fans, correctly predicting in midseason the dramatic leap in his performance that was yet to come.

And Darnold’s growth in the season’s home stretch coincided with great success passing to running backs. That success came throwing to the likes of Elijah McGuire and Trenton Cannon. Now he gets to throw to one of the most prolific receiving running backs through age 25 in NFL history.

Bell leaves a Pittsburgh Steelers team that boasted the best offensive line in football for a Jets team that, well, does not. But the Jets already made a major move to improve that unit, adding Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele in a trade with the Raiders. And last season in Miami, new Jets head coach Adam Gase was able to reinvigorate the seemingly moribund career of ancient Frank Gore, who posted by far his most efficient rushing season since 2012.

The sudden shift of star power in East Rutherford, N.J., is already allowing the Jets to win the back pages of New York tabloids. Now they’ll have to see if they can make up ground on the field, too.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.