The Steelers could run with Rhodes

The Steelers have opened negotiations with running back Jerome Bettis on a deal to lower his cap hit for the 2004 season, but will part ways with Amos Zereoue probably within the next week.

Certainly the team hasn't hidden its interest in taking a running back early in this year's draft. But if the Steelers choose to instead select quarterback Phillip Rivers in the first round with the 11th pick, they could be in the market for a young free agent running back to pair with Bettis in 2004.

Indianapolis' Dominic Rhodes could fill that role.

A restricted free agent, Rhodes would come to the Steelers at a cheap price, much cheaper than, say, Philadelphia's Duce Staley.

And despite his restricted status, the Steelers would owe Indianapolis no compensation for Rhodes, who made the Colts' roster in 2001 as an undrafted free agent out of Midwestern State, even if the Colts make a mid-level or better offer to keep him.

Considering Indianapolis' current cap situation with franchise quarterback Peyton Manning, making a big pitch to keep their backup running back isn't high on the Colts' priority list.

But the 25-year-old Rhodes is no ordinary backup.

In 2001 when star running Edgerrin James went down with a season-ending knee injury, Rhodes stepped in and became the first undrafted rookie free agent to gain 1,000 yards in his first season as he rushed for 1,104 yards and nine touchdowns in just 10 starts. He also showed good receiving skills, catching 34 passes.

Sure, the 5-9, 203-pound Rhodes isn't the typical Steelers' power running back, but with Bettis coming back for another run, they don't need that. They need a player who's not only able come in on third downs, but someone who can also come in and be the every-down back Zereoue never became.

Certainly Rhodes comes with a risk. He tore his ACL in training camp in 2002 following his fantastic rookie season, but came back in 2003 and showed he was all the way back from that injury.

Need proof?

Rhodes averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 2003 and looked very good for the Colts in the playoffs, showing good burst and an ability to get tough yards despite his size.

Need more?

OK, how about this, in his rookie season, Rhodes averaged 25.4 yards on his 14 kickoff returns. In 2003, he averaged 25.7 yards on 16 kickoff returns.

And he's only going to get better.

Is Rhodes a great back? No. But he's a solid back who could come at a reasonable price. And considering the Steelers' current cap situation, that's exactly what they need if they choose to grab Rivers in the first round of April's draft.

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