RUNNING BACKS – 8* * (Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell)**
It's no longer necessary to cite statistics when making the case for Le'Veon Bell as a great player, but if there still are doubters, allow this to serve as the final and definitive statistical evidence necessary: After the Steelers lost a fourth straight game to fall to 4-5, and with their season on the brink of disaster, the team gathered itself and won nine straight to advance to the conference championship. Bell played in eight of those games – the regular season finale against Cleveland was meaningless and he was rested – and he carried 220 times for 1,172 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. That means he averaged 27.5 carries for 146.5 yards (5.3 per attempt) and a touchdown during the eight games of the streak in which he participated. "No. 1, Le'Veon had a great year," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "He certainly is one of the top running backs in the league, if not the best back in the league. He is somebody that we hope to have around for a little while longer, that's for sure." Expect that to happen, whether by long-term extension or through the franchise tag.
This 5-foot-8, 200-pound back from Mercyhurst had some moments early in training camp but not enough of them to earn a roster spot. On and off the practice squad in 2016, Brown-Dukes signed a futures contact on Jan. 24 and should stick around long enough to get another shot to impress at Saint Vincent College.
After tearing it up at Stephen F. Austin, Johnson was undrafted in 2015 and signed with the Oakland Raiders as a college free agent. Starting with the Raiders and ending with the Steelers, who signed him to a futures contract on Jan. 24, Johnson has been with seven different NFL teams without making a 53-man roster. He is 5-foot-10, 215 pounds.
There aren't many guys in the league anymore who can do what Nix does for the Steelers – effectively lead a back through the line of scrimmage by identifying and violently engaging a defender to clear a path, while also serving as a core special teams player – and the team has needed someone with this skill-set since Dan Kreider's time here ended following the 2007 season when Bruce Arians had declared there was no place in his offense for a fullback. Nix is no Kreider yet, but he's developing nicely and appears to have a taste for it. My personal opinion is that Nix has more to contribute as a receiver, and there have been times in Latrobe when he looked like he was capable if called upon.
Another futures signee, Smith first hooked on with the Steelers in November 2016 as a part of the practice squad. He entered the league in 2015 with San Diego as an undrafted rookie from West Virginia. For the Mountaineers Smith (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) rushed for 945 yards (5.2 average) and 10 touchdowns over the course of two seasons. In three preseason games with the Chargers in 2015, Smith carried 21 times for 44 yards.
In 2016, Toussaint served as the backup to DeAngelo Williams during Le'Veon Bell's suspension, and then as the No. 3 running back after that, while also evolving into a guy who came to bear the brunt of the fans' displeasure with kickoff returns. The coaching staff saw him as more than that, but Toussaint would be wise to treat this offseason as a chance to prepare himself for a fight for a roster spot when things move to Latrobe. Everybody knows the name on the top line of this unit's depth chart, but after that things are undefined. It's just the nature of the business.
Bringing DeAngelo Williams on board as an unrestricted free agent deserves to be recognized as the example of the proper way to use that method of roster-building. He has been productive on the field, a teammate, a member of the community, the kind of guy an organization needs to contend for a championship. He can become an unrestricted free agent on March 9, and the following month he'll celebrate his 34th birthday. Does he want to come back? Do the Steelers want him back? As often happens in the NFL, the player's body parts have final say. In 2016 Williams had a knee injury that eventually required a surgical procedure, and it ended up costing him half the season.
He entered the NFL from Florida State as a fifth-round pick of the Bills in 2015, and in 11 games as a rookie he had 517 yards rushing (5.6 average) and seven touchdowns, plus another 11 catches for two more touchdowns. Williams (6-1, 230) was overweight when he reported to camp in 2016, and he has been suspended twice for substance abuse policy violations, the second of those a 10-game suspension imposed last November. Williams will be able to participate during the offseason, OTAs, minicamp, training camp, etc., and if he survives all the way through he then would have to serve the final game of that suspension to open the 2017 season.