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Steelers

Le'Veon Bell, LBs among focal-point positions for Steelers' offseason

Joe Rutter
| Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, 8:15 p.m.
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell stiff-arms the Ravens' Eric Weddle during the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell stiff-arms the Ravens' Eric Weddle during the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Steelers running back LeVeon Bell turns the corner on the Ravens' Brandon Carr for a fourth-quarter touchdown Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back LeVeon Bell turns the corner on the Ravens' Brandon Carr for a fourth-quarter touchdown Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams sacks Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in the fourth quarter Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams sacks Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in the fourth quarter Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, at Heinz Field.

The offensive coordinator is in place, and it's unlikely any changes will take place on the defensive staff.

With the important coaching staff issues occupying the first week of the Steelers offseason, attention now shifts to player acquisition and positions the Steelers must strengthen before they report to Saint Vincent in the summer.

The Senior Bowl takes place in a week. The NFL Combine is five weeks away, followed by free agency. The draft is in April.

Because of injuries, contractual issues and general positions of weakness, the Steelers will set to add to — and in some cases subtract from — a team that won 13 games in the regular season but went one-and-done in the playoffs.

Here are five positions that figure to be focal points of the next three months:

1. Running back

Le'Veon Bell will be a free agent in March, and the Steelers must determine between Feb. 20 and March 6 whether they want to do the franchise-tag dance again.

This year, the price tag goes up to $14.54 million on Bell's franchise tender. The Steelers must decide whether that bar is too high for a versatile runner who finally played a full season without injury yet has a lot of wear and tear on his body over the past five seasons.

Bell caused a stir in the days leading to the divisional-round playoff loss to Jacksonville when he threatened to retire or skip the season if he is tagged again. His holdout last summer was among the earliest distractions in a season filled with them, and the Steelers could decide the hassle isn't the worth the price it will cost to pay Bell.

Bell finished third in the NFL in rushing with 1,291 yards and was second in scrimmage yards this season. His 85 catches for 665 yards helped the Steelers control the ball — they finished fourth in time of possession — and compensated for an overall running game that ranked No. 20 in the NFL. But Bell had only one 100-yard rushing game in the second half of the season, rarely broke long gains and had a 4.0 average per carry that was nearly a yard less than in 2016.

The Steelers allocated 57 percent of their spending ($94 million) on offense last year, more than any NFL team. If they desire to balance the scales, they could let Bell walk and invest in a younger, fresher option in the NFL Draft.

2. Inside linebacker

It was a curious decision when the Steelers did not address the position last year in free agency or in the draft after Lawrence Timmons departed as a free agent. After losing out on free agent Dont'a Hightower, the Steelers maintained the status quo, and the depth was exposed late in the season.

Nobody could have predicted Ryan Shazier's season-ending (and career-threatening) spinal cord injury, but his absence was felt in the final month of the season and in the playoffs when the Steelers had difficulty stopping the run.

Sean Spence, signed off the street, wasn't the answer, and Tyler Matakevich wasn't available on defense with a shoulder injury. Vince Williams is a strong tackler, but he doesn't bring the same sideline-to-sideline skills that made Shazier a Pro Bowl pick for the second year in a row.

The position figures to be a first-round priority in the draft — Mel Kiper Jr. already has slotted Alabama's Rashaan Evans to the Steelers at No. 28 — and it wouldn't be surprising to also see an inside linebacker targeted in free agency.

3. Outside linebacker

This seems to pop up on the Steelers' to-do list every offseason, so why not one more time?

For 2018, it's not so much a need as an insurance plan. After releasing James Harrison, the Steelers were down to four outside linebackers. Arthur Moats has an expiring contract, and Anthony Chickillo is a restricted free agent.

Besides depth, the Steelers could use someone to push the starters. T.J. Watt's career got off to a good start with seven sacks that were most at the position. Bud Dupree had six sacks, and the Steelers surely expected more. The Steelers also must decide in May whether to pick up Dupree's fifth-year option for 2019.

Keion Adams, a seventh-round pick last year, could be an option after spending the season on injured reserve, but a stabilizing veteran also wouldn't hurt.

4. Safety

For all of his bravado, Mike Mitchell didn't back it up on the field in 2017, be it in defending the pass or delivering big tackles. More than his penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time, Mitchell might have outplayed his usefulness because of his salary.

Mitchell has a $5 million base salary in 2018, the final year of his deal, and he will count $8.1 million against the salary cap. Trouble is, the Steelers haven't developed a replacement at the position. Robert Golden is a special teams player, and J.J. Wilcox couldn't get on the field the second half of the season.

If the Steelers cut Mitchell, Sean Davis could move from strong safety to free safety. Or they could simply target Mitchell's replacement in the draft or free agency.

Either way, the Steelers need a talent upgrade at the position.

5. Tight end

Until Shazier's injury, it seemed like tight end would be a position targeted in the first round of the draft.

In his third season, Jesse James set career highs in catches (43) and receiving yards (372), but those were modest improvement over 2016, and he was an afterthought in the playoff loss to Jacksonville when Vance McDonald was targeted 16 times and had 10 catches for 112 yards.

McDonald, though, comes with his own issues. He is prone to drops and injuries. His contract ranks No. 12 on the team with a $4.3 million salary cap figure. He also has roster and workout bonuses worth a combined $600,000 on top of his $3.7 million base salary.

Unlike his predecessor, Ladarius Green, McDonald returned to health in time for the playoffs and has no injury issues carrying into the offseason. If the Steelers are OK with the price tag, he could get another chance to build a rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

If not, the Steelers could be back in the market for another pass-catching tight end.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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