Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
RUNNING BACKS (8)
Le'Veon Bell, James Conner, Trey Edmunds, Rosie Nix, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels, Ralph Webb, Malik Williams
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 2 unrestricted – Le'Veon Bell, Stevan Ridley)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
For those interested in painting a happy picture, there are plenty of raw materials to do so. In his second NFL season, James Conner showed himself capable of being a No. 1 running back in the NFL, and he was voted to the Pro Bowl as a result. Conner finished the season with 973 yards rushing and averaged 4.5 per attempt, to go along with 12 touchdowns. He also added another 497 receiving yards (9.0 per catch) and scored a 13th touchdown. His 1,470 yards from scrimmage had him at No. 10 in the NFL; his 13 total touchdowns was good for ninth in the NFL; and his third-and-1 conversion rate of 83.3 percent (10-of-12) was tied-for-17th in the NFL. All of that points to Conner being an integral part of the Steelers offensive moving forward.
Under the category of "needs to be better" would be his fumbles, and the correction could be as simple as learning to secure the ball tight to his body, the way Jerome Bettis always carried it, and Conner also should be using these offseasons early in his career to what's possible to prepare his body to withstand the demands of his position and make injuries less likely. Conner missed the final two games of his rookie season with an MCL injury that required surgery, and his missed three games with a high ankle sprain in 2018. Those aren't the kinds of things that would have Conner deserving of an "injury-prone" label, but the best of the best at the running back position end up being the guys for whom availability is not an annual issue. But clearly, it's far, far more good than bad when it comes to Conner as he heads into his third NFL season.
As his rookie season evolved, Jaylen Samuels developed into a very nice complement to Conner, first as a receiver and then as a runner as that part of his game developed. After the Dec. 9 game in Oakland, Samuels had 118 receiving yards vs. 59 rushing yards to that point in the season, but then with Conner out with a high ankle sprain, Samuels had 19 carries for 142 yards (7.5 average) in a win over New England and then 53 yards on 12 carries (4.4 average) in a loss to the Saints. He would finish with 26 catches for 199 yards (7.7 average) and three touchdowns, and with 256 yards rushing on 56 carries (4.5 average). Like Conner, Samuels can and should be expected to improve, but he already showed he belongs in the league and deserves a role on offense moving forward.
Stevan Ridley likely fumbled away his shot at being retained as depth behind Conner and Samuels, and once the Steelers come to the conclusion that it's not in their character to employ an offense so tilted toward the pass, fullback Rosie Nix should see more playing time in the backfield than he did last season.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In averaging 90.3 rushing yards per game, the Steelers finished 31st in the NFL in that category, and to illustrate how out of character that is for this franchise, it should be noted that since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, a span of 49 seasons, the Steelers have finished a season ranked 20th or worse in the NFL in rushing just six times. Over those same 49 seasons, they have finished in the top 10 in rushing 28 times. Eleven of the 21 seasons in which the Steelers didn't finish a season in the top 10 in rushing have come during Ben Roethlisberger's tenure as the starting quarterback.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019
It's a decision that figures to have a significant impact on the Steelers' ability to make moves during the upcoming offseason, and that decision involves what to do with Le'Veon Bell. Keep him. Tag him in an effort to get something for him. Cut all ties and be done with him.
Those are the options in a saga that began in February 2017 when the Steelers used the first of back-to-back exclusive franchise tags on Bell as a way of holding onto him while continuing to negotiate a long-term contract extension. But after two offseasons of negotiating toward that goal were fruitless, and then after Bell chose the nuclear option and forfeited $14.5 million in 2018 money that would've been fully guaranteed as soon as the tender was signed, and because Bell already has turned down a couple of offers from the Steelers that were overly generous based on what NFL teams currently are paying most of the league's productive running backs, all of this combines to indicate the relationship is over.
How it ends, though, isn't necessarily as clear. The Steelers could opt to place the transition tag on Bell – based on the amount of that tag, which may end up being determined through arbitration because the NFL and the NFLPA don't currently agree on whether it should be around $9 million (the NFL's position) or more in the neighborhood of $14.5 million (the NFLPA's position).
The Steelers' hope in using the transition tag could be to get a team to trade a draft pick as an enticement for them not to match the offer sheet. Under that scenario, the Steelers would get a pick in the 2019 draft as opposed to subjecting themselves to the compensatory pick formula and then not getting the pick until 2020. While the Steelers' official position always is that all things remain on the table, including a third application of the franchise tag, carrying the amount of that tag – $20-plus million – along with the dead money hit of around $21 million they would incur as part of a trade of Antonio Brown would cripple any opportunity to be active in free agency.
Based on what they got from Conner and Samuels in 2018, there is little pressing need to spend a premium 2019 draft pick here, and as for depth behind those two, a mid-level free agent could fill the role quite nicely.
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