The Pittsburgh Steelers are set with Le’Veon Bell as their first string running back.
Bell enjoyed a solid rookie campaign which could have been even more productive had he not missed the first three games due to a foot injury. As entrenched as Bell is as Pittsburgh’s starting running back, the Steelers must solidify the depth behind the former Michigan State Spartan during the upcoming offseason.
Bell’s top three backups at the position will all become unrestricted free agents this March, and Pittsburgh’s brass will need to determine who needs to stay and who must go.
Of the three running backs who will become UFAs in two months, I believe that Jonathan Dwyer should be the team’s top priority to re-sign. Am I advocating that the Steelers break the bank for the backup running back? Heck no. Yet the team’s leading rusher in 2012 emerged as a solid role player and short-yardage runner for the team last fall.
In addition to his ability to run downhill and pick up tough yards (197 last fall in a backup role), Dwyer’s decent hands, ability to contribute on the special teams coverage units and relatively young age (24) should help him make a strong case to stay with the Steelers beyond the 2013 season.
As far as LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones are concerned, the Steelers’ brass might have some tougher decisions to make.
Stephens-Howling was supposed to make a large impact last season on special teams and on third downs during his first year with Pittsburgh. Unfortunately for him, his 2013 season ended with an ACL injury he sustained on opening weekend. Overall, Stephens-Howling only gained 55 all-purpose yards before he was shelved.
To his credit, Felix Jones stepped in and handled the kickoff return chores for the Steelers last fall. Jones not only led Pittsburgh in kickoff return yards (510), he also chipped in with 184 rushing yards which ranked third on the team behind Bell and Dwyer.
Although the Steelers will not necessarily have to ink Jones and Stephens-Howling to lucrative deals, the cap-strapped franchise might be inclined to replace one or even both of the veteran backs with younger and cheaper options through the 2014 NFL Draft.
As I mentioned above, I would really like to see the front office make a concerted effort to re-sign Dwyer for depth, short yardage and special teams purposes. He really seemed to respond in a positive manner after he was released after preseason play. Plus, we all saw how much he could contribute during the 2012 regular season when he handled a bulk of the carries.
I certainly would not mind seeing Jones or Stephens-Howling back in town for another season. Jones emerged as a pleasant surprise as a kick returner, and Stephens-Howling did well during the preseason as a runner before he was injured.
Regardless of what transpires when it comes to upcoming offseason moves, I am simply happy that we will discuss running back depth questions this spring as opposed to questions regarding who will start at running back during the upcoming regular season like we did in 2013.
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