Steel City Underground

Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams

No one can argue that Le'Veon Bell is an extraordinary player. We have heard to the point of rolling our eyes at what has become clichés over his "patient" running style, receiving skills, and well, pretty much anything the running back can do.

And he does it all. He lines up in the slot. He's a great blocker. Sometimes he has games where he has as many (or more) receiving yards than rushing yards. He's the greatest weapon on offense, and considered to be the best all-around back in the NFL.

However, in several seasons since Le'Veon has joined the Steelers, he hasn't always been available. In four years, he has not played in four complete seasons. He has been suspended twice, in back-to-back seasons for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He has been injured multiple times, including a slow start to his rookie season, and two season-ending knee injuries knocking him out of the 2014 and 2015 campaigns.

2016 was the first season Bell played in the postseason, despite the Steelers qualifying for the playoffs for the last three. Then, we come to find out he was playing through this set of games with a non-disclosed groin injury which put him out of the AFC Championship game in the first quarter (a game where he only carried the ball six times).

The backup plans in place of Le'Veon have been hit-or-miss. We all know the story of LeGarrette Blount walking out of a game in 2014, which then, didn't seem to be that big of a deal until the Steelers had to play in the Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens with practice squad running back Josh Harris and signing Ben Tate off the streets to play with less than a week of practice.

Similarly, DeAngelo Williams was signed to a two-year contract in 2015 and played out that contract with gusto. In Bell's place for suspension and injury, Williams was one of the league's top rushers and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns (even with fewer games played than his counterparts). Unfortunately, he too would succumb to injury for the 2015 postseason, once again leaving the Steelers in a jackpot, relying on backups Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint to shoulder the burden.

Williams once again started the next season in place of Bell (suspension) and carried on where he left off. He was named AFC Player of the Week in week one of the 2016 season, along with being named FedEx Ground Player of the Week in week two.

DeAngelo made more than a name for himself as successful running back, despite being in his second act of his career, which started with the Carolina Panthers. At 34 years of age, Williams is now a free agent once again. His contract was not renewed, and he has yet to sign with any team. While Williams had some knee and back issues last season, he still showed the same spryness he has during his Pittsburgh part of his career, by resuming the starting role late in the season against the Cleveland Browns, and filling in for Bell during the AFC title game.

Without Williams, the running back depth chart looks a bit bare. Currently, the only backup with any NFL experience is Fitzgerald Toussaint. (Update: see note below on a new free agent signing.) Karlos Williams, who signed a two-year futures contract in January, was released just after the offseason began.

It's imperative that the Steelers find some depth at the position, and I believe they could wait and see what the draft brings, but why do that?

After a second opinion, Le'Veon Bell decided to have groin surgery, which could take up to six weeks to recover from before sports conditioning can occur. By all accounts, it was successful as we saw Bell in a hospital gown posting on Twitter post-surgery that he already feels better. Regardless, I estimate it will be 6-10 weeks until he is fully back to football form. That takes us into May and OTA's. It might be smart for the Steelers to stock up on a veteran running back now and then ease into the draft with a late round pick at the position.

As mentioned above, there is no shortage of need for a backup running back. Getting one that has proven to be a game changer would be a positive. Toussaint is not the answer, as he has been a game changer in the wrong sense of the word (the 2015 AFC Divisional Round against Denver, where he had a costly fumble). He also could not beat Williams for the backup job last season, and nearly lost his spot to journeyman RB Daryl Richardson.

So what is the holdup?

The fact that DeAngelo will be 34 coming into the new season? The fact that he faced some injuries last season? Or are they just counting on a completely healthy 16-game season, as well as a perfectly healthy playoff push from Bell? (Didn't we just re-sign Landry Jones for same cause and concerns with Big Ben?)

Having a 100% healthy Le'Veon Bell would be unrealistic based on history. That's why I believe the Steelers will bring back DeAngelo Williams. Call me biased, but I do feel he will be a top priority soon; maybe not before the draft, but possibly not long after.

Update 3/20

The Steelers apparently had a backup running back in mind, signing former Chief Knile Davis.

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