After a campaign when he scuffled for any daylight, Le'Veon Bell's list of doubters grew in the offseason. Many wondered if Bell, who averaged career lows in yards per carry (3.0) and yards per touch (4.0) last season, was no longer elite and if the 28-year-old was destined to spin his tires again in Year 2 with a Jets club in transition. He heard it all and then he transformed his body, arriving in Florham Park in the best shape of his playing career.
"I see a lot of things and people out there not really giving us a chance," Bell told reporters today. "I just try to get the guys to use that for motivation to help fuel us for the season. This is the best I've felt and I'm ready to show that this is the best Le'Veon Bell who has played in the NFL."
The 6'1" Bell, who rushed for 789 yards last season and 3 TDs and hauled in 66 receptions, has played most of his entire professional career at 225 pounds. That won't be the case, though, when he lines up behind Sam Darnold in the Jets backfield this summer.
"This will be the lightest I've ever played at in the NFL," Bell said. "I don't want to say a specific number, but it's in the 210-215 range. I just stay within that range and I feel good. It's the lightest I've been playing since literally high school football."
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After running behind 11 different OL starters last season and 9 different OL combinations, Bell should benefit from Joe Douglas' offseason line facelift. He remains a versatile weapon and the Jets plan on taking advantage of his unique skill set.
"I think Le'Veon can help in so many ways and we've seen it in the past," Darnold said. "He's so good out of the backfield catching the ball, he can line up as a receiver and run so many routes and catch the football. But let's not forget what he does best which is run the football. There are so many different ways he can help us win. It'll be fun to game plan things for him that we feel like we will be able to take advantage of because he's got such a wide skill set of things that he can do."
Head coach Adam Gase told reporters that he did a "bad job" early last season of forcing the action with Bell when opponents keyed on him with Darnold out of the lineup. As a result, the sturdy Bell took unnecessary punishment and Gase said the Jets have to be wise the way he is used in order to keep him healthy for 16-plus games.
"We have to do a good job of getting him some open lanes, we have to make sure we have to do a better job of scheming some things up for him to make sure he is the primary guy on some of the passing game stuff," Gase said. "We're going to be able to do a lot more with him and I think with him being in this system another year, I think he's going to be able to communicate with the offensive line, quarterback, tight ends that, 'Hey, this is what I need here.'"
Bell needed to challenge himself this offseason differently. He changed his mindset, competing against himself and going the extra round. He took up boxing, regularly participating in late-night sessions to push himself to another level.
"Was I really the best that I could be? I know I wasn't. I even wasn't close," he said of his 2019 version. "I think this year is going to be a lot different in that aspect just because I really understand that the last six or seven years, I've worked hard and that's why I've been successful. But I haven't worked nearly as hard as I've worked the last 6.5 months."
While the chiseled Bell's weight is down, Gase stressed the importance of getting the offense's play-count up. And when the Jets have the ball, Gase wants to keep his star back, who will be joined by future Hall of Famer Frank Gore and La'Mical Perine in the backfield this season, on the move.
"We need to get up to that 65-70 range and now it's we can use him more in empty and we can release him more from the backfield. He gets more touches in the run game and screen game, just trying to find these little ways," Gase said. "It's just about getting the ball in his hands and letting him go do things. Letting him make defenders miss and finding ways to get him in open space. Really it's variety."
The energetic Bell professed his love for Gase as a head coach and described the offensive play-caller as "chill." He also acknowledged that he didn't like the way former Jets safety Jamal Adams, who lobbied for Bell to sign with the Jets in 2019, handled things before he was dealt to Seattle in one of the most significant trades in franchise history. He added he loved playing with Adams and was looking forward to matching up with him in December. Then Bell quickly turned the page back to his team, looking forward to what is ahead. He's still the same man, but the motivation is real, the chip is big and the best may yet be in front of him.
"I want everybody to know that I'm the best conditioned that I've ever been and I'm excited to show it," he said. "I'm ready, I'm happy to show it, I can't wait."