268 is not a small number.
That is how many touches Le’Veon Bell has received during the first 12 games of his NFL career.
To his credit, Bell has emerged as a reliable and complimentary weapon for Ben Roethlisberger in recent weeks, but 268 touches is a large amount. Bell already ranks 13th in the league in total rushing attempts, 5th in total rushing attempts per game and is responsible for over 61% of the team’s rushing attempts in spite of the fact that he missed the first three games of his rookie campaign.
Although Bell has been the recipient of plenty of touches this fall, Pittsburgh might have to find him some help during the offseason since Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer and the injured LaRod Stephens-Howling are all set to become unrestricted free agents (UFAs) this spring.
Granted, the Steelers could very well ink one of these backs during the offseason for depth purposes. Yet with so many other impending UFAs set to hit the open market (Jason Worilds, Jerricho Cotchery, Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders, etc.),the team might have to say goodbye to what little depth they have at the position.
Make no mistake, I am not advocating that the Steelers need to find a running back as early as they did when they selected Bell with the 48th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. In fact, it would be extremely foolish for the team’s brass to ignore other more important needs (cornerback, wide receiver, tight end, left tackle, etc.) so they could take a running back on the first two days of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Nevertheless, the need for a specialty running back or even two will exist if Jones, Dwyer, Stephens-Howling or some combination of the three depart this spring. Of course, who Pittsburgh’s brass target will be according to who does not return to the team in 2014.
If they are looking for someone to help out with the kickoff and punt return chores and can provide some speed out of the backfield like Jones or Stephens-Howling, then someone like the shifty DeAnthony Thomas of Oregon could be a tremendous value pickup if he slides down the draft board due to his size (5’9″ 170 lbs.) or questions about his durability.
In the event Dwyer leaves, Pittsburgh could fill their need for a short-yardage bruiser who can chip in as a wedge-buster on special teams with a player like Jerome Smith of Syracuse (5’11″ 226 lbs.) or Storm Johnson of Central Florida (6′ 215 lbs.).
Finally, the team could take a character gamble on a player like Isaiah Crowell if they find him to be a solid fit in their offensive system. After a successful freshman campaign at the University of Georgia (850 rushing yards and five touchdowns), Crowell was dismissed from the team after multiple weapons charges in 2012. The running back has tallied 1,964 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns at Alabama State over the last two seasons, and he could be worth a late-round look for a team like the Steelers.
I do not disagree with the notion that Pittsburgh’s front office must be on the lookout to upgrade a number of other positional units before they can even think about doing something about their situation at running back.
More pressing needs aside, this team could stand to use more depth at that position if they are unable to afford or re-sign their current crop of backups. Moreover, it would not hurt the team to have someone to share a bigger portion of the offensive touches load with Bell at the position. Even though he will be only 22 years old next year, the former Michigan State Spartan has logged 682 touches during his last 26 games (college and pro). Thus, keeping their most important player at the position healthy as well as fresh will be a high priority.
Adding depth is never a bad thing in the NFL, and it would not surprise me to see the Steelers target a running back late in the draft or as a priority UDFA to compete for a roster spot and touches next year.
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