The Pittsburgh Steelers found their starting running back in the 2013 NFL draft. Now they just have to find someone to back him up.
As it stands now, rookie Le'Veon Bell is the only running back on the roster beyond 2014, unless you count fullback Will Johnson who gets rushing attempts about as often as Jerricho Cotchery. As far as the roster is concerned, the team will be limited in their options to solidify the rest of the RB depth chart.
The team has several options to clear up enough cap room to add a couple of backs, but none of it will come from the running back room itself.
With both players making minimum salaries, the team has no options here. The team will make room elsewhere, so the team will attempt to fill out the depth chart as inexpensively as they can.
In 2013, the team tried to do so with Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Isaac Redman. Jones and Stephens-Howling were signed to minimum deals, but Stephens-Howling was lost in the first game. Redman was signed to a $1.323 million RFA tender which became guaranteed once the season began. Jonathan Dwyer was originally signed to a similar tender, but the team chose to go with Redman instead. A few weeks later, the team released Redman eating his salary against the cap and signed Dwyer to a minimum deal. They will all be free-agents in 2014.
Dwyer has easily out-produced Redman since returning to the team, mostly in short-yardage situations and energy level. No player put forth more effort per snap than Dwyer in 2013, as he played like a guy who finally got the message. Jones remained healthy all season, something he struggled to do with former teams in the past. It would not be surprising to see the team re-sign either man this off-season, although Dwyer stands a better shot at a multi-year deal due to his age, experience as a starter and limited injury history compared to Jones.
The deal proposed here for Dwyer represents a 3-year, $3.5 million contract including a $1.25 million signing bonus as incentive to remain a backup here rather than elsewhere.
Jones could easily be replaced with Stephens-Howling. Jones was acquired through a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for LB Adrian Robinson prior to the start of the season after Stephens-Howling initially sprained his MCL in the preseason. Stephens-Howling had performed well initially in the offense and was slated to be the team's primary kick returner. Jones assumed both roles when Stephens-Howling landed on IR.
The team could also choose to fill Jones' spot with a draft selection. They would be unlikely to draft another running back in the early rounds with the emergence of Bell, but a lower round pick would fit the budget in the hole currently filled by Jones.
The Steelers will be buyers in the running back market this off-season, although their pockets are practically empty. Bringing in free-agency help isn't out of the realm of possibility, but grabbing someone significantly better than Dwyer or the others already familiar with the team is highly unlikely, at least at the price the current guys can be had for.
Unlike our exploration of the quarterbacks, the running backs will only add to the cap situation for 2014.