With the most dangerous running back in football playing behind a talented and physical offensive line, the Pittsburgh Steelers boast one of the most intimidating ground games in the NFL. The emergence of Le’Veon Bell, the shifty fifth-year back out of Michigan State, as one of the NFL’s top running backs (ranked the 9th overall player by his peers) has vaulted the Steelers ground game into the top tier of the league. Last year’s Steelers not only utilized Bell, but also speedy veteran DeAngelo Williams. Williams led the league in TDs in 2015 and contributed 4 more scores in an injury-plagued 2016 campaign. The 2017 Steelers, however, will have to employ different role players in the depth chart, as Williams is all but gone for good. Who will make the Steelers 53-man roster at running back? Find out below:
RB1: Le’Veon Bell
Bell is a top-10 player in the NFL and it can be argued he is perhaps the best running back in the NFL. His elusive, patient running style made for yet another electric season in 2016, where he led the league in yards from scrimmage per game at a whopping 157 yards per game. For perspective, the next best player on the list, Ezekiel Elliott, averaged 132.9 scrimmage yards per game. In just 12 games, Bell amassed the third-highest total scrimmage yards in the league, just behind Elliott and David Johnson. Bell reached paydirt a total of eleven times in 2016 (two of which were postseason scores), scoring nine total rushing touchdowns and two more through the air. While his contract issues leave question marks for what’s in store for his future with the Steelers, there’s no question who the man is at RB in Pittsburgh. Ring the Bell.
RB2: James Conner
The hometown favorite. The comeback kid. James Conner was beloved by the Steelers fanbase before he was even drafted, and his selection in the third round certainly elicited widespread elation. Conner played high school football in Erie, PA, and college ball at University of Pittsburgh. In 2015, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but he didn’t let it bring him down. He participated in non-contact drills throughout his treatment, and when he was finally cancer-free, he returned to the field as one of the top rushers in the ACC. Conner is an extremely physical runner with ability to catch out of the backfield. In addition to being a great change of pace for the Steelers offense, he’ll provide valuable touches as a goal-line back and could fulfill the role of a safety valve in the passing game, similar to that of starter Le’Veon Bell. He just signed a four-year contract, is already one of the top-selling jerseys in the NFL, and offers a skill-set that will greatly benefit the Steelers, so he’s a virtual lock to make the roster.
RB3: Knile Davis
Another 2013 third-round running back, Knile Davis, is a likely pick for the 53-man roster. Over his five-year career, which was spent mostly with the Kansas City Chiefs, Davis gained a reputation as an explosive kick returner before losing his job to the NFL’s most explosive player, Tyreek Hill. In OTAs, Davis has been receiving plenty of snaps, as Conner has been nursing a nagging hamstring injury for much of the offseason. Davis’ ability as a returner will be what earns him a spot on the roster, because in the backfield his production has been limited and fumble-prone. His roster spot would likely fall to Fitzgerald Touissant, the next man in line at RB, if 2nd year WR DeMarcus Ayers were to make the roster, as Ayers is a talented returner. However, with my prediction that Ayers will be the odd man out at WR, I say Davis gets the nod here.
Odd man out: Fitzgerald Toussaint
Toussaint catches a lot of flak, but he’s a solid back who knows the Steelers offense. However, without a distinguishing skill to put him above his counterparts, he is in danger of being cut. Fans’ strongest memory of Toussaint is likely his costly fumble against the Denver Broncos in the 2015 AFC Divisional Round, but since signing in 2015, Toussaint made plenty of strides as a serviceable backup when Bell or Williams were not available. In 2016, he averaged 4.1 yards per carry on fourteen carries, appearing in all sixteen games and tallying three receptions. Outside of the game-breaker against Denver, Toussaint has never fumbled. In 2016, the team tried to utilize him as a kick returner, but he never gained more than 33 yards, so it’s fair to say Davis fills the kick returner role much more adequately. The trend of keeping free agents brought onto the roster in the offseason does not bode well for Toussaint, as that would mean Davis likely edges him out.
Other names to watch:
As mentioned before, Williams is all but gone for good. On paper, Williams probably has a little bit more left in the tank for his football career. When healthy, he was a presence on the field and was still able to make all the necessary cuts to gain positive yardage. That being said, Williams just signed a contract to participate in a professional wrestling tournament, so it’s fair to say football may not be his main focus right now. Resigning Williams is not outside the realm of possibility for the Steelers, but I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.
Cut in early May, Brown-Dukes was brought back to the roster the second week of June. A former Division II standout, Brown-Dukes has been bouncing on and off the roster since 2016, where he saw limited snaps in the preseason. An undersized but physical runner, Brown-Dukes is adept at finding the end zone. That being said, the team already has a goal line back with ample size.
Williams is a two-year pro who’s been on four teams in two years. At 5’7, 200 lbs, Williams is a speed back who originally signed with the Redskins as an UDFA. The speed back experiment has failed both times it’s been tested during the Tomlin era (see: Archer, Dri & Rainey, Chris) but giving Williams a chance in camp is worth a shot.
Another Division II standout, Watson has one of the more memorable come-up stories in the NFL. Watson was forced to take remedial special education classes throughout his early educational career due to a speech impediment, and his classmates bullied him for this impediment for years. Despite working his way up to normal classes by high school, his remedial education record caused many schools to pass on him. Against tough odds, he made it to Azusa Pacific University, where he shattered every single rushing record. After going undrafted, Watson spent a year on the Bengals practice squad and saw touches with the Eagles in 2016. A power back, Watson likely won’t find a role considering the acquisition of James Conner, but expect him to play well in camp.
Shell is a Pennsylvania favorite, as he is the state’s all-time leader in rushing yards at the high school level. Shell spent a year at Pitt before a messy breakup with the team (which featured him quitting and then being denied a chance to return) and then played his next three years at West Virginia. Despite failing to live up to his expectations coming out of high school, Shell was still a solid back in college, thriving on making defenders miss, but his game may not translate to the next level. He has burst and balance, as well as size and athleticism, but injury and focus issues are a legitimate concern. He was waived mid-June to make room for Brown-Dukes.
What do you think? How many RBs will the Steelers keep on the roster? Will Davis beat out Toussaint? Let us know in the comments below.