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Steelers

Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson could fit if Steelers allow Le'Veon Bell to walk

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, March 4, 2018, 7:01 p.m.

The Steelers have until Tuesday at 4 p.m. to use the franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell, a deadline they are trying to beat by signing the All-Pro running back to a long-term contract.

General manager Kevin Colbert has given every indication he wants to keep Bell in a Steelers uniform for the foreseeable future. Still, if the franchise has a change of heart and lets Bell head into free agency, Colbert and Co. can take comfort knowing several prospects with his running style will be available in the draft.

At the top of the list is Auburn's Kerryon Johnson, an early-round draft pick who not only considers himself a Bell protege, he's a Steelers fan to boot.

At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Johnson made his feelings known when he saw Steelers personnel gathered at the “train station,” the setting where informal meetings take place at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“I made my way over to that table,” Johnson said, flashing a smile. “It's still crazy, being a big Steelers fan. But at the end of the day, you've got to keep a sound mind. They've got their guy.”

Probably, but the Steelers using the franchise tag on Bell would guarantee a $14.54 million salary obligation unless the two sides could work out a long-term contract by July. If the Steelers elect to not tag Bell by Tuesday, they would be in the market for a cheaper, younger option.

Enter Johnson. He doesn't turn 21 until June after leaving Auburn after his junior season. The 6-foot, 200-pound tailback carries a first-round grade, but some draft sites have him going on the second day. Walterfootball.com lists him as the No. 3 running back in his draft class behind Penn State's Saquon Barkley and Georgia's Sony Michel.

At Auburn, Johnson was second-team All-American and first-team All-SEC in 2017 after rushing for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games. Like Bell, he also can catch, pulling in 24 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson heard the Bell comparisons often while at Auburn.

“We both have a habit of stopping in the backfield sometimes. I think that's the main thing that people see,” Johnson said. “We're different, but the comparisons are nice. It's cool. You could be compared to a lot of people, but one of the best in the league — in my opinion, the best one in the league — that's high praise.”

As much as he enjoys the recognition, Johnson made one thing clear when he met with reporters at his NFL Combine interview session.

“Everybody's running style is their own. You take things from guys who are great,” he said. “He's a completely different back than I am, and I'm a completely different back than him. You can't be the exact same copy as anybody.”

Other top prospects at the combine expressed appreciation for Bell and the way he has transformed the running back position in the NFL with his ability to change games with his hands as well as his feet. Barkley cited Bell as one of his influences, as did USC's Ronald Jones.

“It's the patience, most definitely,” Jones said. “And he can do it all: receiving out of the backfield, the stiff arm, the juke moves. He has the whole arsenal.”

Johnson, though, has an affinity for the Steelers that goes beyond Bell. In 2004, when he was in elementary school, Johnson's father bought him the Madden NFL video game.

“I really liked the name: the Steelers,” he said. “Back then, when I was young, I used to think they stole victories. Silly me. Now, I get it, and I've been a fan ever since.”

Johnson noted his interest coincided with the Steelers' return to prominence. The next year, of course, they beat Seattle in the Super Bowl.

“Great timing,” Johnson said.

Perhaps it will be again in April.

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

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