RUNNING BACKS – (9)
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – Will Johnson, Jordan Todman)
Here are three separate facts about Bell: he was a first-team All-Pro in 2014, his second NFL season; he has ended each of his last two regular seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries; as a player going into the final year of his existing contract, he is eligible for an extension this offseason. To listen to Steelers President Art Rooney II, the first fact is more important than the second when it comes to the third. "Again, we still feel like he's going to be a great player … and in terms of his future, we hope his future is here," said Rooney … "I don't think we're sitting here waiting to see something from Le'Veon. I think we've seen enough. So, it really is going to come down to kind of how his contract situation fits in with all the others. I always say it's kind of a jigsaw puzzle you have to put together every year. And so how will these pieces fit together this year vs. next. Unfortunately, you have to make choices. You can't always get everybody done at once, and so that's the process we'll go through over the next couple months."
He finished 2015 with four carries for 7 yards and a touchdown, up from two carries for 0 yards in 2014. Actually before this season, Johnson had four carries for 7 yards in his career, but he provides things to a team that keep him on the roster. Special teams, the versatility to play fullback and then also to line up closer to the line of scrimmage and serve as an extra tight end. But while these attributes have kept him in the league, those attributes also will have him fighting for a roster spot every year. And toward that end, 2015 presented him a new adversary in Roosevelt Nix.
As a senior at Tennessee in 2013, Neal (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) rushed for a career-high 1,124 yards on 215 carries (5.2 average) and scored a career-high 15 rushing touchdowns. He signed with the Packers as an undrafted rookie, and he spent that year on injured reserve. Neal has been on the practice squads of the Packers, Dolphins, Raiders, and Steelers. He signed a futures contract with the Steelers on Jan. 18.
A decorated defensive lineman at Kent State, Nix had adapted nicely to fullback by the end of training camp last summer, and his ability to find the guy with the ball and get him on the ground was an asset in him contributing on special teams. Nix is a better lead blocker than Will Johnson, and he also is the more cap-friendly option. Like Johnson, Nix is going to have to fight for a spot every summer, and as long as the broken foot that landed him on IR on Dec. 28 heals in a timely fashion, he should be right back in the middle of things at camp this summer.
Richardson (5-10, 206), the brother of running back Bernard Scott, entered the NFL as a seventh-round pick by the Rams in 2012, and he beat out fellow rookie Isaiah Pead to be Steven Jackson's backup and rushed for 475 yards on 98 attempts and caught 24 passes. Waived by the Rams in 2014, Richardson, 26 on April 12, has had stints with the Jets, Texans, and Browns before the Steelers signed him to a futures contract on Jan. 20. Given the situation in which the Steelers have found themselves over the last two seasons at the running back position, it only makes sense to explore a lot of different options.
In some cases, a player hits unrestricted free agency at a good time in his career. With Todman it seems as the opposite is true. Signed by the Steelers on Sept. 6 once the team decided Josh Harris wasn't the answer, Todman finally got a chance when the injuries to Bell and Le'Veon Bell left him and Fitz Toussaint as the team's primary running backs in their two 2015 playoff games. Maybe those performances would have earned Todman a foot-hold in the fight for a roster spot in 2016, but now he's an unrestricted free agent. Going somewhere else could mean starting all over, and staying could be made more difficult by the team being more interested in working on contracts for other guys before him.
At 6-2, 235, Toure entered the NFL in 2014 with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted rookie from Tennessee-Martin, where he had 1,138 yards rushing and eight touchdowns as a senior in 2013. In three preseason games with the Colts last summer, Toure had 37 yards on seven carries. Right now for the Steelers, Toure is a guy until they can find another guy. Maybe he becomes more than that. Maybe he doesn't even make it to training camp.
Based on the tangible evidence that the two playoff games provided, Toussaint – 26 on May 4 – has to be considered the front-runner to be the No. 3 running back behind Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and based on the way it's gone for the Steelers and running backs in each of the two previous seasons, that's not an insignificant role. Toussaint literally worked his way into the lineup, going back to his time on the Steelers practice squad, and that approach is valued by Coach Mike Tomlin. Toussaint cannot become a fumbler, however, and expect to be around very long.
The best photos of Running Back DeAngelo Williams from the 2015 season thus far.
Over the salary cap era, the Steelers occasionally have added veterans in the twilights of their careers who wanted to take a shot with a team they perceived to have a chance to compete for a championship. Williams is one of those success stories, and even though this was his first season with the team the Steelers went into the relationship believing they knew him well. When Randy Fichtner was the offensive coordinator at Memphis, he recruited Williams, who ended up playing his college football there. Mike Tomlin coached at Memphis about a decade earlier, and Fichtner now is the Steelers quarterbacks coach. Because he worked in tandem with Jonathan Stewart in Carolina, Williams doesn't have an inordinate number of NFL carries on his soon-to-be 33-year-old body (April 25), and he is savvy enough to understand this is Le'Veon Bell's show here. A great addition last offseason, Williams eliminates the need to add a top backup at this position this offseason.