Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week he wanted a veteran running back to provide depth behind second-year starter Le’Veon Bell. Friday afternoon, Tomlin got his wish when LeGarrette Blount signed a two-year contract worth $3.85 million.
The Steelers did not renegotiate any contracts to sign Blount, who received a $950,000 signing bonus. That means the Steelers are at or near the NFL-mandated $133 million salary cap limit for next season. They were a little more than $1 million under the cap Friday afternoon before Blount signed and likely are paying him a smaller salary in his first season with a bigger salary in 2015.
The Steelers are done with free-agent signings for the time being. They will get $8 million in cap relief June 2 because they designated former linebacker LaMarr Woodley for a post-June 1 release last month. That money can be used to sign draft picks, extend contracts and/or sign other free agents before training camp begins in July.
Blount, a 6-foot, 250-pound power back who is entering his fifth season in the NFL, visited the Steelers Friday. The signing came on the same day Maurice Jones-Drew, another free-agent running back who visited the Steelers last week, agreed to terms with the Oakland Raiders.
The Steelers had been in search of a veteran backup for Bell, who rushed for 860 yards and scored eight touchdowns as a rookie last season. The two reserves behind Bell last season were not asked to return. Jonathan Dwyer signed a free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals, and the Steelers were not interested in re-signing Felix Jones.
“We need to add quality depth to that position, whether it’s through free agency or the draft,” Tomlin said Monday at the NFL meetings in Orlando. “Le’Veon Bell is a talented player, but he’s also a young player. It would be good to get a been-there, done-that type of guy in the room.”
The Steelers remain thin at running back and could add another to the roster in the May draft. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes to have quicker backs at his disposal. He had Chris Rainey in 2012 and LaRod Stephens-Howling last season before he was injured in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Blount does not fit that mold. He is a power runner who instantly provides the Steelers with a viable option in the red zone, where the offense struggled at times last season.
He rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns in a part-time role with the New England Patriots last season. His 5.0 yards per carry average tied for the best of his four-year pro career. Blount, who played his first three seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had a 5.0 average as a rookie in 2010 when he rushed for a career-high 1,007 yards.
The former University of Oregon star was suspended for most of his senior season with the Ducks because he threw a punch at a Boise State player in the opening game of the 2009 season. He was not drafted and originally signed with the Tennessee Titans, but was cut just before the start of the season. Tampa Bay signed him, and he became only the second undrafted free-agent running back to rush for 1,000 yards as a rookie.
Blount’s carries and production declined the next two seasons, and he was traded to the Patriots for a seventh-round pick. Blount rejuvenated his career in New England last season. His strong regular season was followed by a 172-yard, four-touchdown performance in a playoff victory against the Indianapolis Colts.
He might improve the Steelers special teams, too, after averaging 29.1 yards per kickoff return last season with the Patriots. Jones and departed free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders handled most of the kickoff returns last season. The Steelers ranked 21st in the NFL last season in kickoff return yardage with 22.4 yards per return.
Ray Fititpaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.