With the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 season in the books, our attention shifts to the off-season. We will review each position group for the Steelers, and look into how it may change going from 2016 to 2017. For this edition, we will look at the running backs.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Positional Overview: Running back
Le’Veon Bell missed the first three games of the season to suspension. Through two games, Bell was hardly missed. DeAngelo Williams took 58 carries and turned it into 237 yards and two touchdowns. However, in their third game against the Eagles, Williams showed why he was a backup, and at 34 years old, likely did not have the steam to keep that kind of pace up. He carried the ball just eight times for 21 yards in that game, and while the pace of the game dictated more of a passing attack, Williams did not show much explosiveness, and looked worn down early on in the year.
Over the next three weeks, Williams carried the ball eight times for 18 yards with Bell back. He then was inactive in week seven, before returning in week nine for one carry to result in a yard. Weeks 10 through 16, Williams was again on the inactive list, and finished his season with 98 carries, 40 after week two.
Luckily for the Steelers, they signed Williams on to be a backup for a reason. Bell took on that similar pace that Williams saw in the first two weeks for the rest of the season. He averaged about 22 carries per game, and added about eight targets per game for six catches. He totaled 1,884 yards from scrimmage and had nine combined touchdowns. His 12 game pace over a 16 game sample would have been one of the best statistical seasons in NFL history.
However, as the season wore on, the touches may have worn on too. Bell left the AFC Championship game very early with a groin injury, one that he mentioned he had dealt with for a bit, but finally became too much. He had groin surgery recently, and while he hopes to be back, the question will be if the Steelers should integrate a second back into the rotation more often, as both Williams and Bell came away dinged up from being the sole backfield leader.
Fitzgerald Toussaint was active and healthy for 16 games, but he saw less carries than Ben Roethlisberger in 2016. He was more of a special teamer, and ended up with 13 kick returns and 14 carries. Daryl Richardson was active for three games, but managed six yards on his season before being cut. He is now on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Both DeAngelo WIlliams Le’Veon Bell are free agents in 2017. As mentioned, Williams age and physical abilities are something to monitor here. He did return late in the season, and carried the load against the Patriots, but in no way can anyone expect a full season out of a 34-year old Williams with over 1,700 career carries, and six of his eleven NFL seasons shortened by injury. Williams mentioned himself that he has to give it a lot of thought whether he will return next season, and retirement is on the table.
This obviously makes Bell all the more valuable. Bell has finished every season in the NFL with some sort of injury, and has been suspended twice. It makes it tougher to dig into a long-term deal for Bell, but at the right price, the Steelers would hope to lock down the transcendent talent. However, given his talent and what he thinks he’s worth, and the questions surrounding him, many would assume a franchise tag is the best bet here.
Toussaint is signed on for one more season, and the Steelers just re-signed Karlos Williams to the practice squad, who had been reinstated from his second career suspension. Williams has starter capable talent, but practice squad level off-field questions. However, with his brother Vince on the team, if he can keep his head right, he may have been a sneaky acquisition to help ease a loss of Williams this year.
If the Steelers can only franchise tag Bell, drafting a running back is an absolute must. Even with Bell locked down, they should look into the draft for running back talent, but in the later rounds. This appears to be one of the more stacked running back classes in recent memory. If Bell is to go down to injury, there is no way to assume that DeAngelo Williams could pick up the slack for a full season. With Karlos Williams off-field flags, and Toussaint being a third running back at best, they should be in the market for a back up.
It will not be a pressing need, and therefore should not come in the first two rounds. However, with the depth of this class of backs, and the Steelers eye for evaluation, there is a good bet that they can find some value, and a guy who can step in right away in the third round as a backup option. Wayne Gallman, Marlon Mack, Kareem Hunt, Samaje Perine, and Jamaal Williams are the names to watch. The third, or maybe the fourth round will be the time to pull the trigger, but the Steelers should be walking out of the draft with a potential backup, and head into training camp with Toussaint and Williams competing for that third spot.