Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert doesn’t expect running back Le’Veon Bell to take a passive approach to what is expected to be his final year with the team.
He doesn’t expect Bell to run out of bounds to avoid hits that might put his big 2019 payday at risk. He doesn’t expect Bell to have a bitter attitude about not getting a long-term contract from the Steelers.
What he does expect is for Bell, once he eventually joins the team this summer, to play with the determination that made him the NFL’s third-leading rusher last year and a three-time Pro Bowl selection.
“When he gets here ... he will be in top physical condition,” Colbert told reporters Friday morning. “He won’t be in top football condition. When he gets on the field, I never worry about Bell’s competitiveness because he wants to prove that he believes he is the best.
“I don’t worry about that at all. He will put the team over individual goals.”
Colbert, however, acknowledged Bell’s absence from training camp last year affected his start to the season. Bell didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game until the fourth week, and the lack of a running game contributed to the team’s 3-2 start.
“Did him missing training camp hurt him? He was a Pro Bowler. Did it hurt us? Could he have been a better Pro Bowler?” Colbert said. “Yes, I believe so. I think anybody that misses training camp, be it through injury or not being here, is not going to be as good.
“Was he still a Pro Bowler? Yes, he was, but from a team standpoint, which is my main focus ... he’s not here, so we can’t dwell on it and all we can do is try to get better with what we’ve got.”
In Colbert’s estimation, no matter how much Bell trains on his own, none of his exercises or drills can simulate the type of football shape that is achieved through training camp and a four-week preseason.
“There isn’t,” he said. “Anything you can do individually, you don’t get that work with those five offensive linemen or those five offensive linemen and a tight end, and this fit on this run versus that. ...
“All of that is a conditioned reaction and time. It takes time to do that and get that feel. Even when we practice it, it won’t be what you see in a preseason game, and a preseason game isn’t what they are going to see in a regular-season game.”
Because the Steelers and Bell failed to negotiate a long-term contract by the July 16 deadline, the running back will play this season under the $14.54 million franchise tag. Had a deal been struck, Bell’s salary-cap number for 2018 could have been reduced, giving the Steelers more financial flexibility to give contract extensions to other players in the preseason.
Colbert said Bell’s cap number “potentially” could limit negotiations with other players.
This is the time of year when the Steelers consider negotiations with players who have one year remaining on their deals. Players in that category this year are kicker Chris Boswell, guard Ramon Foster and linebacker Vince Williams, among others. The Steelers are approximately $5.1 million under the salary cap, but Colbert typically holds back at least $3 million to pay for potential injury replacements during the season.
“How are we going to manage (the cap)? That is something we are going to watch during the preseason,” he said. “We know what we are dealing with.”
Until Bell reports to the team, likely in early September, the Steelers will deploy a running back rotation that features second-year player James Conner, rookie Jaylen Samuels and veterans Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Conner is healthy this summer after dealing with a hamstring injury suffered in his 2017 rookie minicamp that slowed his progress last season.
“It’s an unknown,” Colbert said about the team’s depth at running back. “When you get hurt in minicamp like James did, you’re getting on that moving train. It’s hard to catch up. Once he got healthy and caught up physically, he did some good things and then got a knee injury (in December).
We don’t know. James has to prove he can be available and be productive for 16 games. Jaylen Samuels has to prove he can be an NFL running back. The other guys, Fitz and Ridley, we know what they’ve done, and they have to prove they can continue to do it.”