Health is the only question about Steelers running backs
March 20, 2016 12:00 AM
Signing DeAngelo Williams after the 2014 season proved to be a godsend for the Steelers after Le’Veon Bell was injured. Williams rushed for nearly 1,000 yards.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The past three times the Steelers made the postseason their starting running backs have been Isaac Redman, Ben Tate and Fitzgerald Toussaint. What might have been if Rashard Mendenhall was healthy for the wild card game in Denver following the 2011 season, or if Le’Veon Bell had been healthy the past two postseasons?
It makes one wonder if the Steelers’ playoff runs in those years would have been extended with a proven running back in the lineup. That’s especially true with Bell considering the Steelers are 22-13 in games he starts during the regular season and 1-2 without him in the playoffs. In three seasons, Bell has proven that he is one of the league’s top running backs. He has averaged 119 yards from scrimmage in 35 career games, combining a bruising and elusive running style with elite pass-catching abilities.
And yet as Bell enters the final season of his rookie contract there are serious questions about his ability to stay healthy. He has missed 16 of 51 games in his first three seasons. He missed the first three games of his rookie season with a foot injury, the playoff game following the ’14 season with a hyper-extended knee, the first two games of last season on a drug suspension and then the final 10 after suffering an MCL injury that required surgery.
Despite missing what amounts to a season over his first three years in the NFL, the Steelers would like to sign Bell to a contract extension. Team president Art Rooney II made his feelings clear shortly after the season ended though he did not commit to that happening in 2016.
“I think he’s somebody we’d like to continue to have on the team for the long run,” Rooney said.
After going 0-4 without him in the lineup during his first two seasons, the Steelers finally figured out a way to win without Bell’s services in 2015. They were 8-4, including 1-1 in the playoffs, last season, and a big reason for that was veteran DeAngelo Williams.
Williams, signed as a free agent before last season, rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception, all while giving the Steelers a reliable and sometimes punishing pass protector.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, Williams injured his foot in the regular-season finale at Cleveland and was not able to play in the playoffs. The combination of Toussaint and Jordan Todman was enough to get the Steelers past the Bengals in the wild card round, but Toussaint’s fumble in the fourth quarter against Denver in an AFC division round playoff game is now engrained in the memories of Steelers fans as much as Mark Stock’s dropped pass, which coincidentally also took place in Denver in the playoffs 26 years earlier.
Nonetheless, Toussaint did enough in his time as a starter to give the coaches reason to believe he can be a competent third-string back next season behind Bell and Williams.
The biggest offseason story line with the running backs is Bell’s contract. If the Steelers and Bell’s representatives cannot come to terms on a long-term deal, Bell will enter his fourth season earning $967,000, a bargain for a back of his caliber.
However, if the Steelers cannot come to terms before next offseason and choose to use the franchise tag on Bell in 2017 they could expect to pay him north of $10 million for one season, perhaps more.
With Rooney’s desire to keep Bell in the long-term and with Williams under contract for one more season, it’s unlikely the Steelers address the position in the draft with a high choice.
With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and a host of playmaking receivers at his disposal, the Steelers don’t need a running back to be the focal point of their offense. They can do that when Bell is healthy if they deem it the best way to achieve victories, but with Antonio Brown close to setting NFL receiving records the past two seasons the Steelers are built to win with a passing game regardless of who lines up at running back.
That’s what makes the contract negotiation with Bell is interesting. Roethlisberger is signed for four more years and is showing no signs of slowing down. They’d like to keep Brown for the long-term, too.
Where and how Bell fits into the salary cap and the offense moving forward will be something to watch over the next several months.
The top five running back prospects as rated by nfldraftscout.com, looking ahead to the NFL draft April 28-30:
Player, school, Yr.
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State Jr.
Derrick Henry, Alabama Jr.
DeVontae Booker, Utah Sr.
Kenneth Dixon, La. Tech Sr.
Alex Collins, Arkansas Jr.
Today-Wednesday: Annual league meeting, Boca Raton, Fla.
April 22: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.
April 28-30: NFL draft, Chicago.
May 23-25: Spring league meeting, Charlotte, N.C.
Aug. 7: Hall of Fame game, Green Bay Packers vs. Indianapolis Colts, Canton, Ohio.
Sept. 8: Likely regular-season opener featuring the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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