Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers have failed to sign running back Le’veon Bell to a long-term contract extension prior to Monday afternoon’s deadline the large consensus is that 2018 will be his final season with the organization. Many fans of the team will now choose to look forward at what the Steelers running back situation will possibly look like in 2019 and if it will ultimately feature a combination of James Conner, the team’s second of two third-round draft picks in 2017, and Jaylen Samuels, the second of two fifth-round draft picks this year. In fact, many might even go as far as to suggest that both players should get plenty of opportunities to show what they can do during the 2018 regular season because Bell isn’t likely to be around in 2019. If you fall in said category, you might ultimately be disappointed with what transpires from September and on.
For starters, the Steelers will be paying Bell $14.544 million in 2018 and that’s quite a price to pay to have him standing on the sideline for any considerable amount of time. Remember, Bell is a player, that when he’s been fully healthy, hardly ever comes off the field. There’s a good reason he’s considered one of, if not the best, all-purpose running backs currently in the NFL as not only can he run inside or outside, he can produce out of the backfield as a pass catcher. If that’s not enough, he has long been solid as a pass protector in the backfield and that’s a part of his game that’s probably not talked about enough.
While Conner should be expected to see some playing time during the 2018 regular season, expectations of him seeing the field more than five offensive snaps a game, on average, should be tempered. Sure, he had some limited success as a ball carrier during his rookie season, but he also failed to stay healthy the entire year just the same. His new physique he showed this offseason, combined with his ability to fully participate in the team’s offseason practices, is great and all, but it means nothing right now in the grand scheme of things. He still has a lot to prove and with Bell likely to be AWOL until the regular season gets underway, he should get plenty of opportunities to do just that.
As for Samuels, he’s yet to prove anything yet outside of reportedly impressing some throughout the football in shorts sessions. While the North Carolina State product did show he could catch the football during his college career from various different position alignments on the field, a lot of those receptions came behind the original line of scrimmage. Additionally, there’s not much of any evidence that Samuels can pass protect well enough at the NFL level as he just wasn’t asked to do that in college. Like Conner, he should get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do with pads on between now and the start of regular season.
If you are looking forward to seeing any one thing during the Steelers slate of four preseason games this year, it should be watching Conner and Samuels get as much playing time as earthly possible. After all, the Steelers should already know who fellow running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley both are at this point in their NFL careers. Should one, or both, young running backs ultimately pass with flying colors during the preseason, it still isn’t likely to result in Bell seeing the field any less during the regular season, barring an injury, of course.
Will and should the Steelers be able to learn quite a bit more about Conner and Samuels than they already know about them during the final weeks before the regular season starts? Absolutely, but they still might have several unanswered questions about the duo as well and those might be dangerous to attempt to answer once the real games start.
Consider this, if you will. Even if Bell were to only play 90 percent of all offensive snaps during the regular season, that would likely leave roughly 100-150 snaps for another running back to play. Will those snaps be enough for the Steelers to determine if one or both can potentially fill Bell’s shoes in 2019? We’ll see. The running back position is considered by many to be a fungible one at the NFL level. While that might be true, a year from now we might still be wondering if Conner and Samuels are fungible enough to replace Bell’s fungiblity.