Steel City Underground

Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner
steelers.com

Welcome to 2018: the same as 2017!

Last season, there was speculation about the future of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Even with rumors of retiring and not playing under the franchise tag, as well as high-ball offers floating around as to what the All-Pro back wants paid, Bell has come out and said the two sides are close to a long-term deal.

Whether that happens or not is another story. The Steelers have never been an organization that pays top dollar for certain players, and nearly always knows when to cut ties after getting the most bang for their buck from their current stable of athletes.

Should the latter be the case and the team cuts ties after 2018 with Bell, I wanted to play a bit of Devil’s Advocate and discuss the potential options the Steelers have to replace their star back.

Unlike my prior predictions where individual players were named as full-time replacements for Le’Veon, I believe the Steelers could go the same route as the two Super Bowl teams, the Patriots and Eagles, and use a committee of backs to fulfill Bell’s duties.

The Patriots got to the Super Bowl last season with a group consisting of Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, James White and Rex Burkhead. The Eagles also had a platoon of ball carriers including Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement.

With it being out of the Steelers price range to exercise another franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell in 2019, they could opt to suit up the following group of players to carry the football this season or the next.

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James Conner

I really, really had to temper fan’s expectations for last year’s third-round draft pick in 2017. I was convinced that Conner wouldn’t see much playing time with Bell, an All-Pro being paid the most money at his position in the league, also on the roster.

I was right.

Conner carried the football 32 times for 144 and was only targeted a single time in the passing game. He appeared in fourteen games before being placed on IR to end his rookie season.

Entering 2018, Conner is still a change of pace back with a bright future, but I don’t envision him getting more of a workload if Bell is still around. In the event that’s not the case, Conner would still be in a time share with others on this list, as I firmly believe he, nor anyone else here, are bell-cow running backs who would play 90-100% of the snaps (or even all three downs).

Regardless, Conner was brought in as an insurance policy for Bell, who missed time in each of his previous seasons due to injuries and/or suspensions. He’s the clear-cut number two on the depth chart, which would make him the favorite to replace Bell.

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Stevan Ridley

A veteran running back who was brought in to replace Conner, Ridley instantly stepped on the field in the Steelers final two regular season games, rushing for 108 yards on 26 carries and scoring one touchdown.

The Steelers brought him back on a one-year deal this offseason, immediately adding credibility to their backfield and making sure they have more than one option behind Conner, should he or Bell not be available.

That may sound silly, but it’s happened before: Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint were pressed into action when Bell and then backup DeAngelo Williams were both on the sideline in the 2015 postseason.

That makes Ridley a valuable and viable option on the depth chart, provided he can stave off Toussaint and others for a place on the final 53-man roster.

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Jaylen Samuels

Replacing Bell as a running back may be feasible with Conner, Ridley, or Toussaint, but his role as a receiver would be near impossible to fill if not for the addition of Samuels in this year’s draft.

Draft analysts had no idea what to call Samuels. In college, his own university, N.C. State, didn’t know what to list the versatile Samuels either. Initially called a TE/FB, Samuels was listed by the team as “H” for his official position his senior season, because he’s purely an offensive weapon.

His measurables don’t fit into a typical role of an NFL fullback, tight end or wide receiver, but Samuels plays all three.

He led the Wolfpack in receiving his senior season and had 195 receptions over his last three years playing college ball. He didn’t rush nearly as much since Colts fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines shared the backfield with Samuels: but the latter is more than capable.

Samuels also finds the end zone often, scoring 47 touchdowns in college and another 55 in high school.

If he finds a niche with the Steelers offense, which I believe he will, Samuels could go a long way into the team’s long-term decision making on what to do with Bell.

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Future Draft Pick

Despite the loss of Ryan Shazier, who could still return, the Steelers aren’t exactly in the worst position when it comes to filling team needs in next year’s draft. Situations change but the early outlook is that they will keep nearly all of the offense intact, as well as most of their defense. At most, they should return all 11 starters on each side of the ball.

At the least, that figure could drop to 9 or 10.

The minus-one could be Le’Veon Bell, who the Steelers could seek to replace in next year’s NFL Draft. They’ll already know by then if Bell will be back or not, as this offseason will have passed as well as the free agency period in early 2019.

With Ben Roethlisberger’s potential heir already on roster, a stable of capable receivers, a deep secondary and both lines under contract for a season or two longer, what else would they burn a draft pick on other than the best player available?

That could end up being a team need as well, if Bell were to leave or any of the above names don’t show the ability to take the ball and literally run with it.

I’m of the opinion that the Steelers have already started building for the future with picks such as Terrell Edmunds, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Juju Smith-Schuster, and James Washington. That leaves them wide-open to be patient and find another running back in the 2019 draft.





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