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Free Agent Focus: One big fish, plenty of depth in running back pool

There’s Le’Veon Bell, then there’s everyone else when it comes to free-agent running backs in the NFL.

The Steelers’ star is one of the best playmakers in the entire league, which is why he got the franchise tag last season. The same situation could present itself again in the coming days, as the Pittsburgh front office weighs whether to use the tag on him for a second straight year.

The reasons for doing so make plenty of sense. Bell is still just 25 years old, and is a two-time All-Pro. He averages 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game, which is more than any running back in NFL history dating back to the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. In three of his five pro seasons, he’s rushed for at least 1,200 yards and caught at least 75 passes.

Along with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, the Steelers have a dynamic offense, so keeping them together would make sense.

Using the tag on Bell would cost Pittsburgh $14.7 million in 2018. That would be nearly double the second highest-paid running back in the league (Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman, at $8.25 million) in terms of annual salary.

“Well, every year is a new challenge,” Steelers President Art Rooney II said when he was asked about signing Bell to a long-term deal, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with the salary cap. We’re lucky to have three players like Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. They’re the kind of players that command a large salary. We’re going to do our best to make it work. That’s what you want — the best players on your team.”

Even though Bell is the most productive running back in the league, he plays a position known for its short shelf life. He’s handled a big workload the past two seasons while also dealing with injuries and off-the-field issues that include missing five games in two years because of suspensions for substance abuse violations.

All of that makes a long-term contract from the Steelers or any other team risky. For teams not wanting to spend that kind of money, there are other starting options scheduled to hit the open market.

That list starts with San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde, who played 71 percent of the 49ers’ offensive snaps in 2017. Although he does not have a 1,000-yard rushing season on his resume, Hyde did appear in all 16 games last year, rushing 240 times for 938 yards and catching 59 passes for 350 yards. That production as a receiver blew away his previous career best of 27 catches for 163 yards in 2016, and showed that Hyde can be used in all situations.

Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell will likely come at a cheaper price than either Bell or Hyde. Crowell been inconsistent with the Browns – rushing for 90 or more yards in eight games the past three seasons and 16 games with 30 or less ­– but he’s got the combination of speed and power that might convince some team he can be a feature back.

The price tag for all three of those players will likely be too rich for the Buffalo Bills, who could use depth behind starter LeSean McCoy at the position. Mike Tolbert and Travaris Cadet, each of whom spent time as the Bills’ No. 2 running back in 2017, are both scheduled to become free agents. Neither are expected to command a big salary, so the Bills shouldn’t have trouble re-signing one or both of them if they’re interested.

If not, there are plenty of other options scheduled to hit the open market.

Instead of losing talent to New England, the Bills could raid the Patriots for either Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead, both of whom are 27 years old.

If it’s another division rival the Bills would rather poach from, Miami’s Damien Williams has a reputation for being a positive presence in the Dolphins’ locker room. The 26-year-old averaged 3.9 yards per carry in 2017, rushing 46 times for 181 yards. He also caught 20 passes for 155 yards and is thought of as a good blocker, all skills that provide value as a No. 2 running back. Williams was expected to share carries with Kenyan Drake after the Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi, but Drake ended up establishing himself as the starter. That could lead to Williams seeking more of an opportunity elsewhere.

If Buffalo wants more of a power option to go with McCoy’s speed and elusiveness, the Bengals’ Jeremy Hill is only 25 years old and won’t cost much after being limited to seven games in 2017. A 6-foot-1, 230-pounder, Hill ran for 1,124 yards as a rookie in 2014, but lost his spot when the Bengals added Joe Mixon last year in the second round of the draft.

Hill acknowledged that he’ll be moving on earlier this month when he tweeted “been one hell of a ride Cincinnati on to the next chapter.”

It was reported Tuesday that free agent Chris Ivory, recently released by the Jacksonville Jaguars, was visiting with the Bills. As first reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, Ivory was at One Bills Drive and was planning to visit with other teams in the league.

Bills visit with free-agent running back Chris Ivory

The Giants’ Orleans Darkwa averaged 4.4 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns in 2017.

“I learned a lot as far as how to take care of my body,” Darkwa told the Giants’ official website after he set a career high with 171 carries in 2017. “That’s the biggest thing. … Especially in the NFL, as a running back getting a lot of carries like that is pretty big. So I invested a lot of time taking care of my body and physical therapy, things of that nature and trying to get stronger as the season keeps going.”

Former University at Buffalo star Branden Oliver is also scheduled to be a free agent after spending the last three seasons with the Chargers.

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