Le'Veon Bell is one of the league's most dynamic players. Where he ranks exactly depends on who you ask, but in general, he's mentioned among the top two or three running backs, not just for his ability to carry the ball but because he's so dangerous as a receiver coming out of the backfield.
Other candidates include David Johnson, LeSean McCoy and Ezekiel Elliott. But if you're asking Hall of Famer and former Steelers great Jack Ham to compare Bell, who is playing on the $12.1 million franchise tender and entering his fifth NFL season, to Elliott, the 2016 Rookie of the Year ... well, there is no comparison.
"Bell is the best route runner I have seen for a running back in a long time," Ham, who played from 1971-1982, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette. Ham added: "[Elliott] can't hold his jock as a receiver or route runner." "Running a flare out of the backfield is not running a route. There's a huge difference. Elliot is a flare guy, not a route runner. Bell understands this. He didn't do that at Michigan State. They didn't use him like that. Here they found out he was such a good receiver. It's a big weapon when he's in there."
A season ago, Bell ran for 1,268 yards (4.9 YPC) and seven touchdowns. He also had 75 receptions for 616 yards and another two scores. Elliott, meanwhile, rushed for 1,631 yards (5.1 YPC) and 15 touchdowns, and added 32 receptions for 313 yards and a score. According to Football Outsiders' metrics, Elliott was the league's best runner in '16 and Bell was third (behind McCoy). But as a pass-catching back, Bell was No. 2 (behind Johnson) while Elliott was 11th.
Back to Ham.
"I ran a 4.6 as a linebacker. I'm covering these running backs because they're not all that nifty or athletic," he said. "Today . . . [Bell] is too quick for a linebacker to cover and too physical for a safety to cover in a nickel package. That's where the game has changed and that's why a guy like Bell, those guys are now the No. 1 option on a lot of these routes.
"It puts tremendous amount of pressure on a linebacker," Ham continued. "If you can't handle that, it's an easy throw for a quarterback. That's why a guy like Bell is so valuable to this football team. You can put him out there as a wide receiver. You going to put a linebacker out there or a safety? If you do that, it opens it up. It dictates a lot to a defense when you have a guy like Bell. It changes what defensive coordinators can do when you know a linebacker can't handle that. It's a lot of pressure."
And despite missing all of training camp and the preseason, the expectation is that Bell will be featured in the Steelers' opener against the Browns on Sunday.