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The Steelers Le'Veon Bell: From controversial draft pick to standout running back

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At many points during the 2013 season, it seemed the Steelers had made a mistake in choosing Le'Veon Bell instead of Eddie Lacy in the 2013 draft. By the end of the 2014 season, however, it was clear the Steelers had made the right choice.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most controversial stories coming out of the 2013 draft was the Steelers decision to pick RB Le'Veon Bell in the second round when Alabama standout Eddie Lacy was still on the board. Going into that draft, a RB was an urgent need for the Steelers who were coming off of a dismal 2012 season on the ground, during which the Steelers ranked 26th in rushing offense and averaged just 96.1 yards per game.

With the Steelers run game so ineffective, the decision to go with Bell was controversial. Lacy was widely considered to be a stronger RB, and was predicted to be the first RB taken in the draft. During his last year at Alabama, Lacy's stats were impressive: 1,322 rushing yards, 17 rushing touchdowns, and two receiving touchdowns. Some scouts opined that he would be a good fit for the Steelers due to his talent and physicality, but the assumption was that the team would have to trade up to get him. But, hark! He was still available when it was the Steelers turn to pick, and it was a surprise and letdown to many that the Black and Gold went with Bell over Lacy.

Bell was also a talented player. He had a very successful college career at Michigan State, racking up 3,346 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns in his three years with the Spartans.  

In college, he was an astoundingly powerful and effective blocker. He proved his versatility, able to rack up receiving yards in addition to yards on the ground.

Fans grumbled and questioned this choice, and Bell would not prove the naysayers wrong in 2013. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Bell was plagued with injuries before the season even started, suffering a bruised knee in training camp and the a foot sprain a few weeks later during a preseason game. Bell was also not very svelte in 2013, standing 6'1" and weighing 244 pounds. It wasn't a completely soft I-play-too-much-Grand-Theft-Auto-and-Eat-a-Whole-Large-Pizza-Every-Hour-on-the-Hour, but he was still considered to be on the heavy side.

In September 2013, QB Ben Roethlisberger did not seem enthusiastic about the rookie in an interview with 93.7 The Fan. He complained, "Honestly, I have no idea with him. You can't get a read on him. One day, he's practicing, one day, he's not; one day, he's going hard, the next day, he's not. If he was a guy like Health Miller that you knew was busting his butt every day to get back there... Le'Veon is a rookie, I don't know him quite well enough yet. But if he can come back and help us, we'll take him." Let me be your Dissatisfaction Translator. Ben was actually saying, "This guy is unreliable and lazy, but if he's on the field, I'll try to include him sometimes." (Except by this point Ben did not have as much leeway as he did under his buddy and former Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians, so it wasn't entirely up to him.)

Meanwhile, Eddie Lacy was having an annoyingly fantastic season with the Green Bay Packers, one that would earn him a nomination for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He rushed for just under 1,200 yards, eighth most in the NFL that year. He was also sixth in yards after contact and third in number of touchdowns. In large part, he carried the team when Aaron Rodgers was out injured.

It was hard to watch Lacy and not think, "The Steelers could have had him instead." The painfully frustrating irony was that the Steelers were hesitant to draft Lacy because of his surgically fused toe. Then Bell, who was considered healthier and more durable by the Black and Gold, ended up being the one who was injured.

Despite Bell's poor performance and concerns over his work ethic and durability, Tomlin stuck by his choice, which at the time seemed an untenable position. Tomlin said in mid-December 2013, "It was an easy decision for me to select Le'Veon Bell." He praised both Bell's versatility and "elite" receiving skills.

In fact, Bell's season was not disastrous. Despite the injuries, Bell was named the Steelers top rookie for 2013, finishing the season with 770 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, and 393 receiving yards. He wasn't a bust by any means, but it was hard not to compare him to the healthier, more productive Lacy.

Bell's performance in 2014 vindicated Tomlin's controversial choice. Having dropped 20 pounds in the offseason, Bell was heralded as one of the best RBs in the league at the beginning of the 2014 seasonTomlin told ESPN, "He has shown he is committed to maintaining a level of conditioning over the course of a 12-month calendar and he has taken off from there." That weight loss helped Bell become more explosive, faster, and even more agile, which resulted in greater output and productivity across the board. In 2014 Bell told the Tribune-Review, "The fact that I lost the weight-- I could legitimately feel the explosion and quickness."

Another change in 2014 was the arrival of Adrian Peterson's former RB coach with the Vikings, James Saxon. The Running Back Whisperer. Bell was always a patient RB, but under the previous coach, Kirby Wilson, that patience often involved some Riverdance-like moves that seemed both unnecessary and inefficient. Under Wilson, Rashard Mendenhall also employed the same choreography and fancy footwork before he finally executed the play. I would sit on my sofa at home and watch holes close up before my eyes and Mendenhall, and 2013 Bell, finished their recitals.

Also unlike other RBs in the Steelers recent history, Bell rarely relied on the Back into an Offensive Lineman and Bounce Off for a Loss maneuver. It is like that Saxon's coaching accounts for some of Bell's development and growth as a player. Bell also generated more missed tackles, which he was able to do every 3.4 touches during the 2014 season.Sports Illustrated criticized his ability to break tackles in a June 2014 article, so this particular statistic reflects an important improvement in Bell's game.

Meanwhile, up in Green Bay Lacy was having a lackluster season. It took until the fifth game of the season for him to emerge from hibernation and have a 100-yard-game. Suddenly, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin seemed like geniuses. Of course they passed on Lacy, Bell was clearly the superior player. (Personally, I hadn't complained that much to that many people about that draft pick, so it was easy to pretend I had been enthusiastic since draft day.) Lacy did finish the season strong and ended up with 1,139 rushing yards, which matched his rookie year performance (though his rookie year he played in one less game).

Still, 2014 proved to be the year of Le'Veon Bell. He finished the season with over 850 receiving yards, 1,361 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, and no fumbles. He also ranked second in broken tackles.

Despite doubts after the 2013 draft, and shaky start to his career -- relative to Lacy, the player the Steelers could have drafted-- he has become one of the best-- if not the best-- running back in the NFL. Le'Veon Bell has lofty goals for his career. He doesn't just want to be a great running back. "I want to be remembered," he told ESPN. "I want to change the game." He has proven all his doubters wrong.