When running back Le’Veon Bell was a rookie, the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to surround him with veterans. They had Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer at the ready and ended up bringing in Felix Jones via trade. That continued the following year when they signed LeGarrette Blount, and then a year later with the addition of DeAngelo Williams.
Not so anymore. Last year, the Steelers were content to enter the regular season with a rookie as their primary backup to Bell, and a first-year player with minimal experience behind both of them. That is good news, in my opinion, for Jaylen Samuels, and bad news for Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley.
When the Steelers opened the regular season a year ago, Bell’s backups were a rookie James Conner and first-year Terrell Watson, a former undrafted free agent who spent a very limited amount of time on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster, getting some carries in a season finale.
Watson won the job over Toussaint, who ended up on the practice squad, and Knile Davis, another veteran running back. The thought was that, with Conner in the mix, the other runner was going to be somebody with experience, but they were willing to forego that.
Of course, circumstances changed, and the team ended up swapping Watson for Toussaint, the two backs reversing roles and the former heading to the practice squad. But the team has already shown in multiple different years that they are willing to walk away from Toussaint.
Bell and Conner are obviously going to be the one-two punch at the top of the depth chart, but there are three legitimate options for the number three role, with two veterans and a rookie. Based on the decisions that they made on cutdown day a year ago, there isn’t likely to be any experience-based bias against Samuels.
The truth is that the NC State rookie has done well. While he was hardly asked to play in the final preseason game, I took at as a good sign that the coaching staff had seen enough to decide he is worthy of being on the team.
Samuels played nearly every snap of the second halves of the second and third preseason games, and performed better and better in each game. Head Coach Mike Tomlin really tried to test his endurance in the third game, with the second half beginning with seven straight touches for him.
My guess is that the young back passed Tomlin’s test. He didn’t really slow down all game. While he admitted that he got winded after a few long gains in a row, he stayed in the game and never checked out, something the team wanted to see from him.
I don’t know if there are going to be three or four halfbacks remaining when the team makes its cuts tomorrow, but I’m pretty confident that Samuels’ name will be among those left standing. He offers a dimension in the passing game that they don’t, which Tomlin suggested could be used this year.