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April 27, 2013

Steelers take Bell in 2nd Round

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 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 endured 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."

Bell, who announced his decision to forgo his senior season on Jan. 3, became the second running back chosen in the 2013 NFL Draft, behind only North Carolina's Giovani Bernard (No. 37 overall by Cincinnati).

He also became the third Spartan running back to be drafted in Mark Dantonio's first six seasons as head coach, joining Javon Ringer (2009: Tennessee Titans - fifth round) and Edwin Baker (2012: San Diego Chargers - seventh round).

Bell becomes the highest-drafted offensive player from Michigan State since wide receiver Devin Thomas was selected in the second round (No. 34 overall) by the Washington Redskins in 2008. Michigan State has had at least one player chosen every year since the inception of the common NFL Draft in 1967.

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. Steeler 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."

"Le'Veon Bell is a complete football player," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "He led the Big Ten and finished third in the nation with nearly 1,800 rushing yards. With more than 380 carries, Le'Veon proved his physical durability. He is a proven commodity as a pass receiver out of the backfield, a solid pass-blocker and someone who can contribute on special teams. With his versatility, Le'Veon can have an impact in a lot of different ways."

"I was so excited to hear Mike Tomlin on the line," Bell said. "It's a dream come true to be selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coach Tomlin said the organization loved the way I ran. He was surprised that I was still available and said the Steelers couldn't pass me up. It's the best phone call I've ever received.

"Coach Tomlin and I first met at the NFL Combine. It was there that I first learned how much the team liked my running style and pass-catching ability out of the backfield. I had another opportunity to visit with him around our Pro Day, but you never know about the draft process. I'm just glad that it turned out the way that it did. I'm beyond happy."

Bell led the Big Ten and ranked third in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing at 137.9 yards per game.

A first-team All-Big Ten selection (coaches and media) and Doak Walker Award semifinalist, Bell rushed 382 times for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 1,793 rushing yards ranked fifth in the NCAA FBS and marked the second-highest single-season total in MSU history. He led the NCAA FBS in carries (382) - the third-best single-season total in school history and fourth highest in Big Ten record book. Bell accounted for 92 percent of Michigan State's rushing yards (1,793 of 1,942) and 78 percent of its rushing attempts (382 of 492) in 2012.

An All-America selection by CollegeFootballNews.com (first team), Phil Steele (fourth team) and SI.com (honorable mention), Bell was named recipient of the 2012 Elite Running Back Trophy (National Running Back of the Year) by the College Football Performance Awards.

The 6-foot-2, 237-pound Bell was one of just four players in the NCAA FBS to produce three 200-yard rushing games in 2012 (Toledo's David Fluellen, Air Force's Cody Getz, Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews). He also became only the second Spartan to post three 200-yard rushing games in a season (Lorenzo White: school-record four times in 1985). Bell recorded eight 100-yard rushing games - the second-highest single-season total in MSU history.

According to STATS, Bell gained 922 of his 1,793 rushing yards (51 percent) after contact, which ranked first among all NCAA FBS running backs, and broke 16 tackles. In addition, he produced 82 first downs and 34 runs of 10 or more yards, including 13 gains of 20 or more yards.

Bell ranked second in the Big Ten and 14th in the NCAA FBS in all-purpose yards, averaging 155.7 yards per game. His 2,024 all-purpose yards marked the fourth-highest single-season total in Spartan history. He also ranked among the conference leaders in rushing TDs (tied for fourth with 12) and total offense (10th at 140.2 ypg.). A complete back, his 32 receptions (167 yards) ranked fifth on the team.

The Columbus, Ohio, native produced the top single-game total in the NCAA FBS this season for carries (44 vs. Boise State) and eighth-most rushing yards (266 vs. Minnesota).


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