The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 training camp officially got underway on Wednesday and it will likely end three weeks from now without running back Le’Veon Bell ever stepping on the practice fields of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe a second consecutive year. With Bell out of sight and out of mind these next several weeks, the Steelers ought to be able to get a good look at their seemingly talented group of running backs that make up the rest of the position’s depth chart behind Bell.
During his first official press conference of this year’s training camp, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked how he feels about the current depth at the running back position behind Bell.
“We’ll see, Tomlin said. “I’m encouraged by some of the candidates that we have. We’re going to roll that ball out and give them an opportunity to show that. How they perform will give us a sense of maybe what the competition is like and thus what the depth is like.”
It’s easy to understand why Tomlin might downplay the running back depth chart some because we’ve seen in the past that sometimes an undrafted player can shine more during training camp and the preseason than a player who was actually drafted by the team and especially at that particular position. Remember Willie Parker and Isaac Redman? What about Terrell Watson just last year?
Those names and instances aside, this year’s training camp depth chart at the running back position currently includes two experienced players in Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint and two draft picks in James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. If that’s not enough, the other two young running backs currently on the 90-man roster, rookie undrafted free agent Jarvion Franklin, and 2017 undrafted free agent of the Arizona Cardinals, James Summers, are both very intriguing prospects as well based off their college tape.
Of those six running backs I just named, Conner, who was the team’s second of two third-round draft picks in 2017, is a player who really is expected to excel this summer, not only during training camp, but the preseason games as well. After tearing his MCL late last season, Conner not only looks like he has fully recovered from the knee injury, he’s really toned up his physique as well. It should really be fun to watch him partake in the backs on backers drills at training camp and especially with a year of experience under his belt.
The team’s other running back on the roster that was drafted by the team, Samuels, who was selected this year in the fifth-round out of North Carolina State, merely how he was used in his four seasons of college football makes him a super intriguing rookie prospect. Like Conner, we should see a lot of him during the preseason.
While Franklin did go undrafted, fans need reminding that he finished as Western Michigan’s all-time rushing leader, with 4,867 yards — fifth all-time in the history of the Mid-American Conference. He had 56 career touchdowns in college of which 52 came on the ground. He was a first-team All-MAC selection as a freshman and a senior. In short, if he stays healthy, he should compete and might even surprise like Watson did a year ago.
While it’s easy to discount both Ridley and Toussaint as running backs on the roster merely hoping for something unforeseen to happen this summer in order to ultimately make the roster, Tomlin had both of them on his 53-man roster last season.
“I try not to have any preconceived notions,” Tomlin said of his running backs in camp. “You really are just trying to get 90 capable men in a competitive environment and go through the process. And so I’m looking forward to that.”
While Tomlin would obviously like Bell to be present for training camp as opposed to him not being in Latrobe, I think these other running backs on the 90-man roster will certainly keep him occupied until Week 1 rolls around.
“When he [Bell] gets here, we’ll evaluate his overall readiness and how much time he missed and see the ramifications of that,” Tomlin said of his starting running back. “Until then, I’m going to be singularly focused on those that are here working and their development. I just think that that’s appropriate.”
Me, too, Mike.