PITTSBURGH – With so many needs heading into the NFL Draft, some wondered how the team would fill them with quality players.
Friday, the Steelers took another step toward doing just that.
A day after taking University of Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones with their first-round pick in the draft, the Steelers shored up a depleted running back position by signing free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling and selecting former Michigan State star Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Markus Wheaton of Oregon State in the second and third rounds.
“We’re really excited to have Le’Veon,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “We think he’s a three-down back, a guy that can play on first, second and third down. He’s got really good hands, catches the ball very well out of the backfield. And he’s a young kid, who doesn’t have a lot of tread on the tire, so to speak.”
Running back became a big position of need for the Steelers in the offseason when they lost former No. 1 draft pick Rashard Mendenhall to Arizona as a free agent and released 2012 fifth-round pick Chris Rainey after he was arrested on assault charges in Florida.
That left the Steelers with just three running backs – Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Baron Batch – on the roster.
And at wide receiver, the team lost Mike Wallace, leaving the Steelers with aging Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery with any experience behind starters Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders, Burress and Cotchery will all be free agents at the end of the 2013 season.
Now, the depth chart looks much different, particularly at running back.
“With Rashard no longer here and Chris Rainey no longer part of the mix, it was a position that we needed to bring in competition,” said Haley. “We got two totally different guys with LaRod and Le’Veon. We’re all excited. It puts us back in a place where we can have a chance to run the ball and throw the ball out of the backfield successfully.”
With Mendenhall coming off a torn ACL, the Steelers used a running back-by-committee approach and ranked just 26th in the NFL in rushing in 2012. Dwyer’s 623 yards were the fewest for a team leader since Merril Hoge had 610 in 1991.
In the 21-year-old Bell, the Steelers feel they are getting a workhorse runner capable of carrying the ball 20 times per game. Bell, 6-1, 230 pounds, led in the Big Ten in rushing in 2012 with 1,793 yards on an astounding 382 carries, which led college football. He scored 12 touchdowns and added another 167 yards and a score on 32 receptions.
“I’m a balanced runner,” said Bell, who grew up just outside of Columbus, Ohio. “I’m a bigger guy. I’m 230 pounds. I can go in there and get tough yardage and short yardage. A lot of people look at me like, ‘He’s just a short-yardage back.’ But I don’t look at myself like that. I can get to the outside and beat you with speed. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can pass protect. I can play special teams. I played on punt return and kick return in college. There’s a lot of things I can do to bring value to the Steelers and that’s what I plan on doing.”
Haley compared Bell, who ran a 4.57 40-yard dash and had the fastest three-cone drill time among running backs at the NFL Combine, to a former NFL running back who also spent some time in Columbus.
“I drew some Eddie George physical traits to him,” said Haley of the former Ohio State and Tennessee Titans star. “He’s taller than what you normally see. He’s a good athlete, and we love the fact that he catches the ball really well, yet still has that big-back presence.”
In the 5-7, 185-pound Stephens-Howling, the Steelers got a player with a scat-back presence.
A seventh-round pick in 2009, Stephens-Howling has appeared in 57 NFL games, making 10 starts. He has gained 651 yards and scored five touchdowns on 182 carries, while also catching 56 passes for 534 yards and three scores. He has returned three kickoffs for scores.
Wheaton, 5-11, 182 pounds, caught 227 career passes for the Beavers, including 91 in 2012, setting a school record. He had 2,994 receiving yards and scored 16 touchdowns, while adding another 631 yards rushing and five scores on 83 carries.
“He’s had great production both as a receiver and handled the ball as a runner, which we like from a versatility standpoint,” said Haley of Wheaton, who ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. “He’s a good, solid football player that brings speed to the team. He’s a fast guy who can stretch the field. He’s a good, versatile football player.”
The draft concludes today with rounds four through seven. The Steelers have five remaining picks, including a pair in the sixth round.