(AP) — There was a chance the Steelers were playing with Le’Veon Bell as their running back for only one more season anyway. The former All-Pro is in a contract year and there was no guarantee the Steelers would be able to agree with him on a long-term deal, or use their franchise tag on him, which would keep him under team control for one more season.
The news Friday that Bell is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy could seal the deal that Bell is playing his final season with the Steelers.
ESPN reported Bell is facing the suspension for a missed drug test. Under the league’s substance abuse policy, a missed drug test is a failed drug test.
The Steelers and Bell could not be reached for comment. In June, Bell dismissed a report that said he had failed or missed a drug test. “I am fine,” he said.
A missed drug test is the reason Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant will serve a year-long suspension.
When Bell pleaded guilty to DUI in 2014, he was automatically placed in Stage 2 of the NFL’s revised substance abuse policy. Once a player is in Stage 2, one missed test, or multiple missed tests, would result in a four-game suspension without pay.
Unlike Bryant, who has two years remaining on a cheap rookie contract, there is little or no reason for the Steelers to consider having Bell on their team next season. He is in the final year of his rookie contract and would cost around $11 million in guaranteed money to have him on the roster next season. That’s the approximate amount of the franchise tag for a running back in 2017.
Just as the Steelers figured out they couldn’t count on Bryant — that’s the reason they drafted Sammie Coates in the third round last spring — they now understand they can’t count on Bell.
The Steelers didn’t draft a running back this year, but that might only be because the 2017 running back class is filled with quality prospects. They can draft another running back that will most certainly be cheaper than Bell. They’d be hoping he would more reliable.
The reality for this season is Bell should only miss four games. The Steelers might not have Bell in their long-term plans, but it won’t prevent them from using him this season. After Bryant served his four-game suspension last season, the Steelers leaned on him in the passing game. He had 765 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 11 regular-season games and had 183 receiving yards and a touchdown in two playoff games.
There is no reason to believe the Steelers won’t do the same with Bell. Coach Mike Tomlin once said he was going to run Willie Parker until “the wheels came off.” Tomlin could run Bell’s wheels down to the rims and no one in the front office would blink an eye.
The Steelers have a team that’s capable of winning the Super Bowl this year, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley will feature his best players when they are available to achieve that goal.
When healthy the past three seasons, Bell established himself as one of the top running backs in the league. In 35 career games, Bell rushed for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s also a big part of the passing game with 152 receptions for 1,389 yards.
Bell’s absence will hurt the Steelers, especially when it comes to their goal of earning a top playoff seed in the AFC, but they did go 7-3 without Bell last season. The reason for the stellar record without Bell was DeAngelo Williams, the veteran who rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns.
It was Williams’ best season since rushing for 1,117 yards in 2009. Williams, 33, is entering the final season of a two-year contract he signed with the Steelers in the spring of 2015.
In addition to his running skills, Williams proved to be a strong pass blocker and an effective receiver out of the backfield. He caught 40 passes for 367 yards.
Williams played in all 16 regular-season games last season, but he was injured in the finale against the Browns and did not dress for either of the team’s two playoff games.
The Steelers’ running game remained effective in the 18-16 AFC wild-card victory against the Bengals, rushing for 167 yards. It wasn’t until the 23-16 loss to Denver the following week in an AFC divisional-round game that the running game stalled. The Steelers only rushed for 85 yards in that game.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, whose fourth-quarter fumble against the Broncos likely cost the Steelers a spot in the AFC championship game, will enter training camp as Williams’ backup. Toussaint rushed for 42 yards on 18 carries in the regular season and 97 yards and a touchdown on 29 postseason carries.
The Steelers also have former Rams running back Daryl Richardson, plus Cameron Stingily, Brandon Brown-Dukes and Brandon Johnson on their training camp roster. Richardson is the only one with NFL regular-season experience. He rushed for 690 yards (4.1 yards per carry) in two seasons with the Rams in 2012 and 2013.
For the Steelers, the first four games are among the most difficult on the Steelers’ schedule. They begin the season on the road at Washington before coming home to face Cincinnati. They then play at Philadelphia before facing Kansas City at Heinz Field. The Redskins, Bengals and Chiefs were playoff teams a year ago.
As long as the Steelers play .500 or better, they should remain among the favorites to win the AFC. But if they run into hard time early in the season, Bell’s suspension could be the blow that sabotaged their season.