LATROBE, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have opened another training camp unsure of when their dominant running back will sign his franchise-tag tender and report for work. Stop me if you heard this one before.
It's déjà vu all over again for the Steelers as they put on the full pads for the first time late Saturday afternoon for an old-school, tackle-to-the-ground NFL football practice -- their first of the 2018 season -- while one of their best players was off in parts unknown (but probably in the vicinity of South Beach) doing his own preparations for what is widely believed to be his final season in Pittsburgh. Now just three days into training camp, coach Mike Tomlin has already on fielding questions about Le'Veon Bell, having lived out this exact same scenario a year ago after another failed attempt to sign the running back to a long-term deal. Most around here figure he ends up reporting just on the eve of the regular season, as he did a year ago.
That would be suboptimal for the Steelers -- who are in Super Bowl-or-bust mode with this team as presently constituted -- and perhaps as well for Bell, who did start slowly in 2017 after missing so much time before turning in what is now considered a typical Bell tour de force (1,291 yards rushing, nine rushing touchdowns, 85 catches for 655 yards with two receiving touchdowns). The Steelers put the ball in his hands more than ever before in 2017, and with him only contractually bound to them for one more year, one would anticipate a rigorous workload ahead for 2018 as well, whenever he does show up. They are hoping that date comes sooner rather than later, while also privately bracing for it not arriving until sometime in September.
"Unfortunately, we have to go through it again," general manager Kevin Colbert told me from the rolling hills of St. Vincent's College, where this iconic franchise has held its camp for decades. "The fortunate part is at the end we will have Le'Veon Bell on our team. Ideally, the earlier he gets here the better it will be for him and obviously for us, because I don't think he got off to the kind of start (in 2017) he would have gotten off to had he worked for his team for a week or two, whatever that would have been.
"You just need that timing; you need that football conditioning. He'll show up and be in great physical condition, but that can never equate to great football conditioning until they go through this."
One could argue, I suppose, that 2017 wasn't quite up to Bell's loftiest standard (he managed a league-average 4.0 yards per carry, down from the 4.9 and 4.7 he mustered in his last two seasons), and if you want to pick nits, well, he hasn't reached double-digit rushing touchdowns in a season since entering the league in 2013. But then again, he also ran the ball a staggering 321 times -- 60 times more than in the season before -- and amassed an astounding 406 touches, 60 more than anyone else in the entire NFL and the most in the league since Chris Johnson's 408 touches when he ran for 2,000-plus yards in 2009. After a pedestrian 13 touches in the season-opening game -- when Bell was not sharp -- he went on to average 28 touches a game in the final 14 regular-season games he played.
With the Steelers now just renting him for another season, one suspects that's unlikely to change, something no doubt on the player's mind as well as he walked away from an even bigger offer than Pittsburgh put on the table a year ago.
While the guaranteed money was not to the running back's liking, it was exponentially greater than the $10 million that NFL Media erroneously reported he was offered, and it was worth $45 million over the first three years of the deal; that is essence the prototype of the contract Todd Gurley just signed with the Rams. There was a sense among some in the Steelers organization that Bell wasn't going to sign no matter what they put in front of him, with the allure of actually hitting the free-agent market and drastically resetting the running back compensation bar paramount to him. Getting to negotiate with all 32 teams rather than just one (via the franchise-tag) is the only means to that end.
I don't get the sense anyone here is fooling himself that there is an end game with Bell beyond 2018. The reality is that, with him not turning 26 until after the season, some team will break the bank for him next March and give him in the vicinity of $17 million per season on the open market despite some tread on his legs (some are already opining about the New York Jets in that regard). So the fact that the Steelers get to see more of their other running backs this summer, starting with recent draft pick James Conner, is a bit of a blessing in disguise as they assess their future at that position, while knowing that Bell becomes their present the moment he does put pen to that franchise tender.
All the while Tomlin will continue staying in touch with Bell, and the Steelers will hope that his final game with the franchise comes in Atlanta in the Super Bowl as they still try to get over the troubling loss to the Jaguars at Heinz Field that ended their title run last season.
"Absolutely, those lines of communication are always open," Colbert said. "Coach will talk to him and I'm sure he talks to (running backs coach) James Saxon and (offensive coordinator) Randy Fichtner as well. 'Hey, what's going on?' And I know he talks to his teammates as well. So that's a decision he has to make -- there is nothing we can do except encourage him to come in. And in the meantime we'll get a look at our other guys and see what other options we're going to have."
More observations from Steelers camp:
Big Ben healthy, eyeing contract
A year after faux retirement rumblings, Ben Roethlisberger is doing what everyone around here expected all along -- playing to get one more blockbuster contract. A stellar 2018 would set up contract extension talks a year from now, and with the quarterback pleased about the change to Fichtner at coordinator and looking healthy and in great shape, I wouldn't bet against him.
"He was leading the pack in the conditioning test," Colbert told me, "whereas sometimes in years past he didn't even do the conditioning test, whether he was coming off some type of lower body injury, or a veteran distinction. But I think he insisted on doing it, and he did great. He was leading the pack, and that's always good to see."
If you are looking for a Fantasy value play, Steelers tight end Vance McDonald is worth keeping an eye on. After a late-summer trade from the 49ers, he never really got settled and battled injuries throughout the season. The buzz about him this year has been strong, and in this offense he could put up some numbers.
"The injuries last year really slowed his progress," Colbert said."
Shazier still working with team
Truly awesome to see Ryan Shazier walking around the campus here after the horrific injury the linebacker suffered a year ago. He has not given up on playing football again, however unlikely that is, and relies strongly on his faith. He has been breaking down film and working with the team's personnel department and may pursue coaching down the road as well.
Given the extent of his injury and the risk of future paralysis, it's hard to imagine a team's doctors or insurers signing off a contract.
Cap woes could prevent late additions
With Bell counting roughly $15M against the cap, and Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown making big bucks, too, the Steelers are flush against the cap and don't have much wiggle room to extend players or add talent. However, I would not be surprised at all if they got something down with emerging star kicker Chris Boswell. That's a priority and something they can fit in.
But as for adding guys like McDonald, Joe Haden and JJ Wilcox late like they did a year ago, I wouldn't hold my breath. "It's our job to figure that out," Colbert said.
The quarterback depth chart
The Steelers liked quarterback Mason Rudolph in the draft more than many other teams, and love what they have seen of him so far. He handled Roethlisberger's verbal salvos about the Steelers wasting a third-round pick on him with aplomb and his deep ball prowess wowed people here in the spring. They are big on his upside.
"We had Mason rated with the other top quarterbacks and it was a unique class, and when he was available to us in the third round, it was an easy pick," Colbert said of Rudolph, who was ahead of schedule in minicamp. "So far, so good."
I can't see quarterback Josh Dobbs, Pittsburgh's fourth-round pick in 2017, being on this roster come September. He won't beat out Rudolph or Landry Jones, and his athletic skillset has other teams intrigued. I smell a trade here for sure, with other clubs not nearly as deep at quarterback.
Washington making his mark
If you are looking for the next Steeler receiver to inevitably leap forward, it just may be James Washington. I wouldn't compare him to Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant or JuJu Smth-Schuster just yet, but the second-round pick looks the part, and few teams evaluate receivers the way the Steelers do. He had a strong spring, latched on to some bombs and is improving by the day.
"He just has to get used to the height and speed of professional corners, and as camp goes on we think he'll gain that," Colbert said. "He's adjusting well from the college game to the pro game.
What can you do for Brown?
Speaking of Brown, he has a personal trainer/fitness guru of sorts who has been on the sidelines for each camp practice, often adorned in some flamboyant garb to rival some outfits the receiver wears. It's not uncommon for him to be squirting water for him or hyping up Brown during practice.
You gotta love training camp. Never short on characters.