The last in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency at 4 p.m. on March 14.
RUNNING BACKS – (6)
Le'Veon Bell, James Conner, Roosevelt Nix, Stevan Ridley, James Summers, Fitz Toussaint,
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 1 unrestricted – Stevan Ridley; 1 restricted – Fitz Toussaint)
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
On the one hand, there was a first-team All-Pro in the backfield and another one at right guard. Overall, three of the five linemen were voted to the Pro Bowl, and the unit also boasted a legitimate franchise quarterback and the best wide receiver in football. Adding all of that up should've totaled more than the No. 20 rushing offense in football, a running game that should've averaged more than 3.8 yards per attempt.
The first time the Steelers placed the franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell, he didn't sign his $12.12 million tender until Sept. 1, and that meant he missed the entire offseason program, training camp, and the preseason. Maybe that contributed to him not posting a 100-yard game until the fourth week of the regular season, but then starting with his 144 yards on 35 carries in Baltimore against the Ravens on Oct. 1, Bell also rushed for 179 yards on 32 carries against the Chiefs in Kansas City and then the next week he had 134 yards on 35 carries against the Bengals at Heinz Field.
Starting with Oct. 1 in Baltimore, Bell had nine 100-yard games in terms of yards from scrimmage over the next 12 weeks, and in the other three he had 93 against the Jaguars, 81 in Detroit against the Lions, and 97 in Houston against the Texans. Bell finished second in the NFL with 1,946 scrimmage yards, the third-most in a single season in franchise history. Bell also led all NFL running backs with 85 catches, which represented the most receptions by a running back in a single season in Steelers history, and his 6,286 yards from scrimmage through his 50th career game in Week 3 is the fourth-most in NFL history over that span.
Bell finished the season with a 4.022 average per carry, and he accounted for 77.4 percent of the team's rushing yardage. James Conner had 32 carries for 144 yards in 14 games before injuring his knee, and Stevan Ridley, who was signed when Conner had surgery and was placed on IR, had 26 carries for 108 yards while being on the roster for just two regular season games.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Since the 1970 merger, the Steelers offense has finished a season ranked 20th or worse in rushing just five times over that 48 season span. Those five seasons were 2003 when they were No. 31; 2008 when they were No. 23; 2012 when they were No. 26; 2013 when they were tied-for-No. 27; and 2017 when they were No. 20.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2018
To tag or not to tag. That was the question hovering over the Le'Veon Bell situation as soon as this offseason began officially for the Steelers on the day after that AFC Divisional Round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That issue was settled on March 6 when the Steelers placed the exclusive franchise tag on Bell for the second straight year. The move guarantees Bell a salary of $14.54 million for the 2018 season once he signs the tender, and the sides still have until July 16 to come to agreement on a long-term contract.
Because of the amount of money involved, it's difficult to believe Bell won't be present for the regular season opener in order to begin collecting the weekly game checks of $855,294.12. And because the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement allow Bell to be absent until he signs that tender, it's reasonable to expect him to skip the offseason program, training camp, and the preseason, since that was his tactic last year. That almost certainly will lead to another slow start for both Bell and the running attack.
Conner has had surgery to repair the MCL that landed him on the injured reserve list, and he's expected to make a full recovery, and expected to make that full recovery in plenty of time to participate in training camp. Conner showed some abilities with the football in his hands as a rookie in 2017, but he wasn't sufficiently dependable in pass protection to make himself a viable option for more playing time.
Ridley, who turned 29 in January, is an unrestricted free agent, but he's also an unrestricted free agent in search of a soft landing spot, because he was out of football when the Steelers came looking for depth at running back last Dec. 19. The Steelers don't have a lot of room under the salary cap for free agents, but maybe Ridley could be enticed into a short-term arrangement as a hedge against Bell being rusty early in 2018.
The Steelers are going to need their premium picks in the upcoming draft to address their needs at inside linebacker and safety, and maybe, just maybe, they come to believe some combination of Conner and Ridley can hold them over until Bell signs the franchise tender and gets himself into playing shape.
Rosie Nix played in his first Pro Bowl in January, and the Steelers showed what they think of him by signing him to a reported four-year contract in early February even though he had little leverage as a player who only was going to become a restricted free agent.