When the Steelers released backup RB LeGarette Blount because of attitude related issues, they effectively opened the door for Le'Veon Bell to take the reins as one of the most utilized backs in the NFL. And that indeed was the case, as the second year All-Pro played 98 percent of the team snaps from Blount's release onward.
A scary-looking Week 17 knee injury forced Bell out of the Steelers' Wild Card playoff game with the Baltimore Ravens, a game where Dri Archer, Josh Harris and Ben Tate shared backfield work in the sophomore's absence. Archer, a rookie, was a third round pick who only had 17 touches in the regular season, while Harris was a member of the practice squad weeks earlier. Even Tate, the most accomplished of the group, was playing for his third team of the 2014 season, being forced out of Cleveland by rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrence West and Minnesota because of lack of playtime. The loss of Bell was evident, as the Pittsburgh running game was a non-factor and the Pittsburgh passing attack became a focal point, allowing the Ravens to shutdown Antonio Brown with double teams, and send a merciless blitz towards Ben Roethlisberger.
Obviously, the Steelers enter the 2015 offseason with a plethora of personnel questions, the majority of which reside on the defensive side of the ball. While the Pittsburgh defensive struggles have (and will continue to be) well-documented, the Steelers can always aim to improve on offense and running back depth appears to be an area of need.
At 22-years old, Le'Veon Bell is already one of the leagues top running backs. But, with 671 collegiate carries and his excessive use thus far as a professional, the Steelers would be wise to monitor their young superstar's usage, as his position is notorious for short shelf-lives. To address their need for a backup running back, the Steelers, obviously, could retain Tate, who himself is slated to become a free agent. Pittsburgh could also look to the draft to select a young rusher, but with plenty of other positions of need, it's probably best if the Steelers address other issues prior to selecting another running back.
That being said, the 2015 free agent class, on it's surface, appears to be one of the deepest, most talent-rich classes the NFL has seen in quite some time. Top end talent like Ndamukong Suh, Dez Bryant and Justin Houston will all command huge salaries while players in the middle of the fray like Brandon Flowers, Jerry Hughes and Nick Fairley are probably out of Pittsburgh's price range. One player, however, stands out as a seemingly good fit for the Steelers.
C.J. Spiller, the former Buffalo Bills running back, is one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL. The problem for Spiller has been a nasty combination of injury, underuse and his biggest nemesis of all, Fred Jackson. As recently as 2012, Spiller had a huge season, with over 1,700 all-purpose yards, eight touchdowns and a 6.0 yards per carry average. The last two seasons have been mired by disappointment for the former first round pick from Clemson, as Spiller shared the backfield with Jackson in 2013, rushing for just over 900 yards, while his 2014 campaign was even more disasterous, as he only managed 78 carries on the season before ending up on the injured reserve.
With the past two seasons being relatively unsuccessful, it's possible the Bills are ready to part ways with Spiller. If Spiller hits the open market, his lack of usage, his injury history and his age (he's already 28) will likely be factors that drive down his price. So much so, in fact, the Steelers would be wise to consider pulling the trigger on the veteran.
So why would Pittsburgh be interested in an underused, banged-up, 28-year old running back? Well, for whatever reason, when Doug Marrone came to the Bills in 2013, he decided to split Spiller's carries with Jackson, despite Spiller's huge 2012 campaign complete with a Pro Bowl berth. Despite declaring he would "feed him the ball 'til be puked", Marrone failed to deliver on his promise, effectively halving Spiller's potential workload.
As far as injuries go, they happen. In fact, despite residing the injured reserve for most of 2014, Spiller managed to come back for the final two meaningless games of the season. If he can have an effective offseason, none of his ailments should linger.
And while his age is already approaching the end of his career, his relative lack of use means Spiller only has 668 career carries in his five NFL seasons. Bell, entering his third season in 2015, will do so with 534 carries. If carries are indicative of "miles" on a running back's body, then Spiller is still a relatively new back. Even at an increasing age, the elusive, speedy running back doesn't have the same milage on his body as other players around his age. For comparisons sake Marshawn Lynch, who turns 29 in April, has over 2,000 career carries.
Spiller's ability could serve as a change-of-pace back, while running behind a top Pittsburgh line could aid the former track star in rebounding to his once promising career. While a move for Spiller is probably not realistic, Spiller's talent is worth a look. And for a contract that won't amount to much more than what a backup makes, maybe the Steelers should consider scooping Spiller up.