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Steelers will need Le’Veon Bell if Ben Roethlisberger retires

Le’Veon Bell has generated a lot of debate over the last few months, but at this point everyone can agree that he was a steal in the second round of the 2013 draft.

However, the Steelers might have been too smart for their own good when they used the 48th pick on Bell. It’s nice to have the best running back in the NFL, but it creates a sink-or-swim situation.

Bell has helped make the Steelers championship contenders, but he hasn’t finished any of the last three seasons healthy. When he’s gone down the Steelers’ title hopes have gone down with him.

If the Steelers had more of a committee approach at running back, they wouldn’t be so dependent on Bell. On the other hand, who knows if two or three running backs can average 157 all-purpose yards per game like Bell did last year. That’s the third-highest average for a running back in NFL history.

Bell’s pay in 2017 will reflect that when he signs his franchise tender. He’ll make $12.1 million, more than any other running back. He could get a lot more than that on the open market if he remains healthy for as long as the Steelers play this season.

In a perfect world, the Steelers would play until Feb. 4 and win Super Bowl LII. Then they could set themselves up for the same kind of sustained success the Patriots have enjoyed by letting another team give Bell the megadeal he wants and start building a running back committee with James Conner as the first building block.

Sure, the Patriots won the Super Bowl last year with LeGarrette Blount running the ball 299 times for 1,161 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdowns. But James White was the man in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots already have re-made their backfield by letting Blount go in free agency and adding Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.

Just about any backfield philosophy can work when Tom Brady is your quarterback, and it seems like Brady can play forever.

It doesn’t look like Ben Roethlisberger will play forever, though, and that’s why running Bell into the ground this year and letting him become a free agent might not be wise.

There was a lot of optimism about the Steelers’ championship prospects heading into this season, but their defensive showing during the preseason has tempered those expectations.

Whether the Steelers win the Super Bowl or not, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Roethlisberger retires after the 2017 season. If that happens and Bell leaves in free agency, an offense that’s supposed to be lighting up scoreboards will barely be able to light a match. The Big Three of Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown would become The Big One, and Brown has caught just 24 passes with no touchdowns in five games without Roethlisberger since 2015.

Unless Landry Jones or Joshua Dobbs are ready to sit at the grown-ups table if and when Roethlisberger retires, the Steelers’ offense will have to revolve around Bell until they find their next franchise quarterback.

Even though Roethlisberger is signed through 2019, it’s hard to see him playing three more years the way he’s been flirting with retirement. The Steelers are 2-3 in the five meaningful games Roethlisberger has missed over the last two seasons. Their championship window would slam shut if he retires without a ready-made successor, but Bell would at least give the Steelers a shot at respectability in a post-Roethlisberger world.

If it weren’t for Bell, the Steelers would have been no better than 1-4 in those games without Roethlisberger. He single-handedly won the game in Week 5 at San Diego in 2015 with his goal-line stretch out of the wildcat as time ran out.

The Steelers seemed to recognize Bell’s importance when they offered him a five-year contract worth more than $12 million a year before the July 17 deadline. Bell turned down that deal, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, because as he expressed in a rap song last year he wants $15 million a year.

A player who has been suspended twice, sits out the preseason and raps his contract demands isn’t exactly face-of-the-franchise material. But without Roethlisberger, the Steelers won’t have a quarterback who’s worth the industry standard of $20 million a year. It would free up the cash to give Bell the money he wants. It would be an expensive pill to swallow, a pill that wouldn’t ease the headaches that Bell would probably still cause.

Since Roethlisberger won’t commit to more than a year at a time, the Steelers can’t base their plans for Bell on Roethlisberger. They just have to realize that at this time, they’re not prepared for life without both of them.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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