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Finding a rookie RB to potentially replace Le’Veon Bell isn’t as easy as you think

With Le’Veon Bell’s future in Pittsburgh in flux, many fans believe finding another running back in the draft is easy. Think again.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs running back, Kareem Hunt, took the NFL by storm last season and snared the NFL’s rushing title (1,327 yards) in his inaugural season. Fellow rookie running back, Alvin Kamara, showcased his receiving ability while finishing second in receptions (81 receptions) among all running backs.

The duo was drafted during the 2017 NFL Draft in the third round.

With the inevitable departure of 3-time Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell on the horizon, social media discussions have been rampant with respect to the ease of replacing No. 26 via the NFL Draft, or perhaps by reverting to a Running Back By Committee (RBBC) scheme.

The focus here is on running backs drafted since 2011 and how they’ve fared in the NFL up to the 2018 season. A running back needs modest production during his entire career. As a Steelers fan, do you want a one-year wonder? Do you want to use any draft pick on a player who’s one and done? Do you want the next Ickey Woods?

Of course not. Fans want value in the team’s draft picks.

I’ve set standards for each draft class, aligning those numbers with Bell’s typical production both rushing, and receiving.

The bar isn’t set overly high and should be obtainable if one is talking about replacing a potential Hall of Fame back in Le’Veon Bell in one fell swoop or setting up half of an RBBC. Running backs need to average 550 yards rushing or 50 receptions — low standards for what Steeler fans expect out of the running back position.

Due to potential one-year wonders, the 2017 class will not be noted. The choice of 550 yards is based on Bell’s rushing yards following his suspension and injury-plagued 2015 season. Using 50 receptions is just an arbitrary benchmark that denotes the need for a running back to snag receptions in the Steelers’ pass-happy offense. According to Pro Football Focus,the offense used Bell on 500 passing routes last year.

2016: Must have either 1,100 yards rushing or 100 receptions.

The three running backs who meet either of these criteria are Zeke Elliot (2,614), Jordan Howard (2,435), and Derek Henry (1,234). No running back met the reception mark for the 2-year span. Elliot (4th overall) and Henry (45th overall) were drafted high, while Howard was the diamond-in-the-rough drafted in the fifth round. There were 20 running backs drafted in total, with nine drafted before Howard.

2015: Must have either 1,650 yards rushing or 150 receptions.

Melvin Gordon (2,743) and Todd Gurley (3,296) meet the yardage parameter, while Duke Johnson (188) meets the reception criteria. The other fifteen backs who were drafted miss the criteria. Gurley and Gordon were top-10 draft picks, while Johnson was drafted 77th overall.

2014: Must have either 2,200 yards rushing or 200 receptions.

Fourth rounder, Devonta Freeman, is the cream of the crop with 3,248 yards, while second-rounders Jeremy Hill (2,873) and Carlos Hyde (2,729) cracked the yardage barrier. No back broke 200 receptions, as Freeman comes closest with 193. The draft saw 19 backs selected and a dozen before Freeman. Bishop Sankey was the lone selection before Hill.

2013: Must have either 2,750 yards rushing or 250 receptions.

Not surprising Bell meets both criteria (5,336 and 312) — while three of the other 25 running backs drafted reach the threshold. Sixty-first overall pick Eddie Lacy (3,614), who is currently unsigned and potentially falling out of the league, is a distant second. Former sixth-round steal, Latavius Murray (3,120), may only have a lone thousand yard season under his belt, but he was valued in the Vikings RBBC last year which led the NFL in rushing. The gifted Cincinnati Bengals back, Gio Bernard (2,900) — the first back chosen with the 37th overall pick — ends up 20 receptions shy of the reception mark.

2012 Must have either 3,300 yards rushing or 300 receptions

Alfred Morris (5,503), Lamar Miller (4,891) and Doug Martin (4,633) meet the standards for rushing yards. Miller tops the list of receptions at 184, well short of the yardstick. Miller was snared in the fourth round while Morris, with his fantastic 3-year run to start his career, was taken in the sixth round. There were seven backs taken before Miller while 13 were chosen before Morris with 21 backs selected. Martin — the second back chosen and the 31st overall — is currently locked in a contested battle for carries with the Oakland Raiders.

2011 Must have either 3,850 yards rushing or 350 receptions

DeMarco Murray (7,174) surpasses the touchstone along with late-bloomer and current New Orleans Saint, Mark Ingram (5,362). Murray tops the reception charts with 307 catches — which falls shy of the goal. Murray was drafted 71st overall and the sixth back taken in the class that saw 29 backs drafted. Ingram, on the other hand, was drafted 28th overall and was the first back selected.


There were 103 running backs selected during the span from 2012 to 2016, with 18 of them meeting the criteria. Four of the running backs were drafted before Pittsburgh drafted in the first round, and another five were drafted before the Steelers second round selection. In order to select one of these backs, the Steelers would have had to move up in the first or 2nd rounds — something they rarely do.

The reality is, it’s highly unlikely Bell will be wearing black-and-gold next season, as most believe contract talks are dead. So the next logical step would be to start laying the foundation for a RBBC, or find the elusive, bell-cow back. Is part of that foundation on the team now? That’s debatable. Will the 2019 starting back be the next Bell? Will the Steelers use another high draft choice like they did with Rashard Mendenhall? Or will they go for a mid-range pick in hopes of landing someone better than what Pittsburgh saw out of Bam Morris? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!