When the Steelers woke up on Friday, they were down a couple of running backs, what with having waived Chris Rainey shortly after the 2012 season ended and with Rashard Mendenhall leaving as an unrestricted free agent a couple of months later.
The Steelers wake up today having taken care of that, and they also tended to restoring to their corps of receivers some of what they lost when Mike Wallace took his talents to South Florida after adding Markus Wheaton with their third-round pick of this 2013 NFL Draft.
Before the day’s picking began – and the schedule called for Rounds 2-3 to be staged – the Steelers announced the signing of veteran free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling, who played his college football at Pitt and whose NFL experience had come with the Arizona Cardinals. Where Stephens-Howling can be expected to make his biggest impact is as a return specialist; he has three career kickoff returns for touchdowns.
But that turned out to be just the appetizer, and shame on anyone or any team for thinking Stephens-Howling would satisfy the Steelers’ hunger for a running back.
When it came time for the team’s second-round pick, the 18th of the round, Eddie Lacy – who was the darling of Alabama’s BCS Championship Game win over Notre Dame in early January – still was unpicked. After the Steelers made their selection, Lacy still was unpicked, because the decision had been made that Le’Veon Bell from Michigan State was a better fit here than Lacy.
“Without getting into the specifics, as the process went on it was pretty clear this was the guy we would be most excited about being available when it came to our pick,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “In the end, he was (our top-rated running back). Without getting into specifics, there are a lot of different factors that go into that. He is a young guy who is big. With no disrespect, I drew some Eddie George physical comparisons to him because Le’Veon is taller than what you would normally see. He’s a good athlete. We love the fact that he catches the ball really well, and he still has that big back presence.”
As a junior in 2012, Bell carried 382 times for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns, and while he did most of that as a bruising, power back, he also was used in the Wildcat when Michigan State got into the red zone.
“I’m a balanced runner,” said Bell. “I’m a bigger guy. I’m 230 pounds. I can go in there and get the tough yardage and even though a lot of people look at me and think, ‘He’s just a short yardage back,’ I don’t look at myself like that. I can get to the outside. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can pass protect. I can play special teams. There’s a lot of things that I can do to bring value to the Steelers, and that’s what I plan on doing.”
What Bell wouldn’t admit to planning to do as a rookie is be the starting running back for the regular season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
“I’m going to come in and compete,” said Bell. “I’m going to come in and do the best that I possibly can. I’m going to come in and compete with the other backs and the other backs are going to compete with me. They’re going to try to make me better and I’m going to make them better at the same time. That’s all going to make the team better. I just want to go out there and compete.”
It wasn’t much more than an hour after leaving the media room after talking about Bell that Haley was back behind the podium with another grin on his face as he discussed the merits of adding Wheaton to the mix at wide receiver.
“He is a highly productive receiver out of Oregon State, a four-year guy who had great production as a receiver, and he also handled the football as a runner a bunch, which we like from a versatility standpoint. He’s a good solid football player who brings speed to the team. He’s a fast guy, make no mistake about it, a guy who can stretch the field.”
Wheaton ran a 4.44 at the Combine and said he has run a 4.3. That is maybe a couple of hundredths of a second slower than Wallace’s time when he entered the league, but it’s fast enough to force opposing defenses to account for that aspect whenever he’s on the field.
In his 49 games at Oregon State that included 30 consecutive starts, Wheaton caught a school-record 227 passes, which were good for 2,994 yards and 16 touchdowns. He added 631 yards rushing on 83 carries (7.6 average), with more five scores. Wheaton finished with 3,774 all-purpose yards on 346 touches, an average of 77.02 yards per game and 10.91 yards per play.
“A little different skill set than Mike (Wallace) other than the speed,” said Haley. “I saw Mike as more of an outside receiver outside the numbers. This guy has played the slot a bunch when he wasn’t outside. He has a little wider base, a little more running back build, in my opinion. As for the speed comparison, it’s hard for anyone to run faster than Mike, but this guy does play fast.”
Where he will be playing fast is still undetermined, but Wheaton doesn’t believe he’s limited in that respect.
“To be honest, I envision myself anywhere,” said Wheaton. “I played a lot of outside in college. Obviously, it’s not the same as the NFL, but I feel I can produce outside. If I do need to play inside, I feel I can do both. I like being all over the place. The defense can’t really plan for you when they don’t know where you’re going to be. So I like being all over the place.”
And so after two days of this 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers’ choices cannot be said to be all over the place. They will swear they have done nothing but pick players off their board, but they also cannot deny they have filled some of the holes created over the course of this current offseason.
“With Rashard Mendenhall no longer here and with Chris Rainey no longer in the mix, (running back) was a position where we needed to bring in competition,” said Haley. “We have two totally different type guys with LaRod and Le’Veon. I think it puts us back in a place where we can have a chance to run the ball and throw the ball out of the backfield successfully.
“We need competition, and the receiver position was one of the areas going in where we knew we wanted to add to the competition,” added Haley. “We like the guys we have here, but you get another young guy to compete and push the other guys, that’s always a good thing in my opinion.”