PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers insist they don’t draft based on need.
Funny, doesn’t look like it.
The Steelers took major steps toward replacing departed stars Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace on Friday, taking Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the NFL draft and then grabbing Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton in the third.
Pittsburgh hopes the beefy Bell can stop the revolving door in the backfield the team had to endure last season as Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer all struggled with injuries and inconsistency.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley believes Bell’s versatility and durability could give the Steelers the kind of bruising running back the club has lacked since Jerome Bettis retired after the 2005 season.
“He’s a three-down back with very good hands,” Haley said of Bell. “He catches the ball very well out of the backfield. He’s a young kid who doesn’t have a lot of tread (off) the tire.”
That’s something the Steelers need to boost a running game that has struggled to find consistency the last few seasons. Pittsburgh finished 26th in the league in rushing yards in 2012 as Mendenhall, Dwyer, Redman and rookie Chris Rainey all spent time working themselves into and out of coach Mike Tomlin’s doghouse.
Mendenhall headed to Arizona via free agency last month after five turbulent years. Redman and Dwyer signed their restricted free agent tenders for what amounts to a one-season audition to stick around. Now they’ll be joined by the precocious Bell, who needed just three seasons to become one of the best backs ever at Michigan State.
Bell ran for 3,346 career yards and 33 touchdowns with the Spartans and caught 78 passes for 531 yards and a score. He rolled up 1,793 yards in 2012, the second-highest single-season total in Michigan State history while being named to the All-Big Ten first team.
Though the 6-foot-1 Bell played at 245 pounds in college, he has already dropped 15 pounds to add some quickness. The Steelers also hope it will make him more durable. Steelers running backs Redman and Dwyer — both listed between 230 and 235 — had significant issues last season, but Bell is taller than both players.
“I’m going to come in and compete with the other backs and the other backs are going to compete with me,” Bell said. “They’re going to try and make me better and I’m going to make them better at the same time. That’s all going to make the team better.”
An improved running game would take some of the pressure off Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers best stretch in 2012 came during a four-game winning streak at midseason that included three consecutive 100-yard games, two by Dwyer and one by Redman. They took turns getting hurt or benched over the second half of the season and failed to really seize control of the position after Mendenhall aggravated a knee injury. Bell already caught the attention of new teammate Jarvis Jones. Pittsburgh’s first-round pick faced Bell while playing linebacker for Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl. Bell ran for two touchdowns, including one that tied the game at 27 and sent it to overtime.
“He’s a big boy,” Jones said.
The Steelers think Bell can be more than that. So does Bell.
“A lot of people look at me like, ‘He’s just a short yardage back,’” Bell said. “But I don’t look at myself like that. I can get to the outside and beat you with speed. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can pass protect ... There’s a lot of things that I can do to bring value to the Steelers and that’s what I plan on doing.”
While Bell could have a shot at starting this fall, Wheaton won’t have quite the same pressure. He set a school record by catching 227 passes in his career at Oregon State and added 631 yards rushing. He worked at all four receiver spots though it appears he would be a more natural fit in the slot in the NFL.
Though he averaged just 13.7 yards per catch, Wheaton can get deep. He ran a disappointing 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard-dash leading up to the draft and said he ran as fast as 4.3 in college.
Either way, that already makes him the fastest wideout on the Steelers, who have sure-handed Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders slated to start. Pittsburgh needed someone who can get behind cornerbacks and Haley is encouraged by Wheaton’s consistent production.
“When you put on the tape, he’s a fast player,” Haley said. “He’s an exciting guy to have around.”
Haley cautioned against making any direct comparisons between Wheaton and Wallace, noting Wheaton may be a more well-rounded player.
“The numbers aren’t huge from a yards-per-catch standpoint but he’s one of the guys we thought, that when the ball is in his hands he really will be more exciting,” Haley said. “That leaves the door open to do a lot of things with this guy, which kind of fits in with AB and Emmanuel.”
NOTES: The Steelers signed free-agent running back LaRod Stephens-Howling. The Johnstown native and former Pitt star ran for 652 yards and five touchdowns in four seasons with the Cardinals and thrived as a kick returner. He led the NFL with 1,548 kickoff return yards in 2010.