Free Agency 2003: Part V - Running Back

That the Steelers may consider releasing future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis was a surprising admission by head coach Bill Cowher in his postseason wrap-up news conference. Whether Cowher was serious or just trying to light a fire in Bettis to get into better shape remains to be seen.

If the Steelers do decide to part ways with Bettis after June 1, it would save them his $2.75 million base salary. Of course, when you factor in the remainder of his bonus money over the next two seasons, the savings is less than $1 million this season. The Steelers, however, may be willing to bite the bullet and make that move if Bettis shows up for the team's off-season workouts following the draft looking out of shape.

The key is that the Steelers won't know what kind of shape Bettis is in until after the draft.

Because of that uncertainty, it is unlikely they will take a running back high in this year's draft. And considering the draft's weak running back class and Cowher's usual unwillingness to let a rookie have a big role in his running game, that's probably a good thing.

The team seems comfortable letting Amos Zereoue get another 200 carries next season, but isn't going to give him the ball more than that because of the pounding he would take.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala has yet to prove he can get out of bed in the morning without getting injured and Verron Haynes remains a question mark after suffering a broken leg during his rookie season.

That could leave the Steelers no alternative than to find a mid-priced veteran to share carries with Zereoue if they decide to cut bait with Bettis. And there are some interesting players available that they might be able to replace Bettis with.

Leading that list is Jacksonville's Stacey Mack, a 6-1, 238-pound bruiser who rushed for 436 yards and nine touchdowns in limited duty in 2002.

The 27 year-old Mack had his best season in 2001 subbing for injured Fred Taylor, rushing for 877 yards and nine touchdowns. He has had fumble problems in the past, but that wasn't as much a problem in 2002.

The Steelers might also take a look at Minnesota's Moe Williams, who turned into a short-yardage specialist in 2002, scoring 11 touchdowns and rushing for 414 yards on just 84 carries.

Even though he's 28, Williams didn't play much early in his career, so the 6-1, 210-pounder hasn't taken much of a beating.

The final unrestricted free agent who might interest the Steelers is Denver's Olandis Gary.

Gary has had some injury problems and has fallen victim to Denver's yearly running back race, but gained 1,159 yards in just 11 starts in 1999. The 5-11, 218-pound Gary picked up 147 yards on 37 carries in 2001.

There are also a couple of interesting veterans who could become available after June 1.

Washington is going to release Stephen Davis at some point this offseason, but the 6-0, 230-pound Davis will likely be looking for more money than the Steelers would be willing to pay.

Arizona's Thomas Jones has fallen out of favor with the Cardinals after only three seasons, and the No. 7-overall pick in the 2000 draft could be sent packing.

The Steelers were interested in Jones when he came out of Virginia in 2000, but had locked into taking Plaxico Burress with the eighth-overall pick that season as the draft drew near. The 24 year-old, 5-10, 220-pound Jones has never gained more than 511 yards in a season - which he did in 2002 - but has shown flashes.

The Cardinals have never been known for their patience with young players - this is also the team that gave up on Garrison Hearst - and they've signed backup Marcel Shipp to a new contract during the 2002 season and seem willing to make him their feature back.

Jones is also a solid receiver out of the backfield and could be paired with Zereoue to give the Steelers a nice 1-2 punch.

Dale Lolley
SteelCitySports.com


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