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Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Steelers' position-by-position look: RB

By Scott Brown

PITTSBURGH -- This is the second in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season -- and take a look ahead. I didn't include fullbacks here with Will Johnson under contract in 2014 and the position being one that receives limited snaps

RUNNING BACKS

2014 free agents: Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

The good: Rookie Le'Veon Bell established himself as an every-down back who should anchor the running game for years provided he stays healthy. Bell missed the first three games of the season because of a foot injury, but he was exactly what a sickly running game needed once the second-round draft pick got on the field. Bell broke Franco Harris' record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie (1,259), and he earned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's trust as a receiver and with his ability to pick up blitzing linebackers. Bell averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, but he showed steady improvement -- not to mention toughness, patience and power as well as the athletic ability he flashed with his signature hurdle over would-be tacklers -- and the 6-foot-1, 244-pounder rushed for 214 yards in the Steelers' final two games.

The bad: Depth is an issue, especially if Dwyer signs elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. Alvester Alexander is the only other running back on the roster who is signed for 2014, and he spent all of last season on the practice squad. The Steelers aren't expected to bring back Jones and Stephens-Howling is a question mark after missing most of the 2013 season with a torn ACL. Dwyer carved out a niche for himself as a backup whose physical running style can further wear down opposing defenses when Bell needs a breather as well as a key special-teams player. But with Bell entrenched as the Steelers' feature back will Dwyer seek out a larger role elsewhere?

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Bell will be a bargain again next season when he is scheduled to make a base salary of $495,000 and will count just $936,500 against the cap. The Steelers' top priority should be re-signing Dwyer though they will likely let the fourth-year veteran test free agency and let the market set his price. Stephens-Howling is a strong candidate to re-sign with the Steelers if they are satisfied with the progress he has made recovering from the knee injury he sustained in the 2013 season opener.

Draft priority: It isn't a high one but the Steelers' need for depth as well as recent history suggests that the team will draft a running back. The Steelers have taken a running back in six consecutive drafts, and given how many good ones have been unearthed in the latter rounds of the draft league-wide they are likely to add a back with one of their later picks.