Life after Le'Veon Bell? Draft might reveal Steelers' plans

Fowler: Bell knows his value (1:14)

Jeremy Fowler says that Le'Veon Bell values himself at $14.5 million per year or more and will not play at a lower price. (1:14)

PITTSBURGH -- At the NFL combine, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a formal meeting with potential first-round running back prospect Derrius Guice, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound force of nature from LSU. Teams have dozens of player visits of various positions throughout the draft process. But when viewed through the prism of the Steelers' lengthy negotiations with Le'Veon Bell, anything seems possible for the future of Pittsburgh's backfield.

The absence of a long-term contract on the final day of franchise tag designations sets the stage for a strained summer between both parties. Bell is absolutely taking his fastball to the negotiating table, telling ESPN that he won't play on a long-term contract that pays less than $14.5 million (the franchise tag number) per year.

The goal remains for Bell to retire a Steeler. Jeopardizing the team's championship window by letting the game's best running back walk is contrary to the Steelers' current business plan.

But there are no guarantees when talking about this much money. Bell is making it clear that he isn't budging, and the Steelers might have a tipping point.

Will they consider life without Bell?

Watch for the draft: The combine was buzzing with this question: Should the Steelers pay $15 million for a running back -- even the game's best -- when each draft is littered with quality backs? Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt went from mid-round picks to Pro Bowlers in 4.4 seconds flat. These playmakers can be acquired for about $1 million per year on a rookie deal.

The Steelers need defensive help early in the draft but would be making quite the statement by targeting Guice or Georgia's Sony Michel or Auburn's Kerryon Johnson in the first few rounds.

The team could ask Bell to play on his franchise tag while developing another back. If they wanted to go full Dave Gettleman, they would rescind the tag after securing the player they want. That wouldn't be the Steelers' way, though. Bell seems open to free agency.

A peek into the 2015-16 draft classes shows that running backs in the first four-to-five rounds hit about 50 percent of the time, maybe higher. Plenty of stars, a few busts, many serviceable players.

What's next for James Conner?: Conner's rookie season was tough to evaluate, in part because of Bell's enormous presence. Conner's 144 yards on 32 carries showed his ability to pick up quick yardage in spot duty, particularly on outside runs. But coaches say Conner's struggles in special teams stunted his growth a bit. To be sure, Conner said he worked hard to clean up those early season issues. Plus, a knee injury sidelined Conner for the final two weeks of the season.

As it stands, Conner projects to be the Steelers' primary No. 2. Is he a starter on a potential championship team? Maybe he can develop into that. But he might be best paired with another young back so the two can develop without having to carry the every-down burden.

Tweaking the passing attack: The Steelers are dedicated to the pass more than most, averaging 36.8 attempts per game, which ranked sixth in the NFL in 2018. Bell is a huge part of that equation. Ben Roethlisberger is at his best when Bell is getting those extra 60 to 70 yards per game on dump-offs or routes over the middle. Roethlisberger has praised Bell for improving his pass-catching prowess the past few years.

Big Ben and new coordinator Randy Fichtner would have to alter their game plan without Bell. Assuming that a rookie could handle Bell's duties on passing downs would be foolish. JuJu Smith-Schuster told me in February that he's studying the entire offense to understand the responsibilities of every player. As a result, perhaps the Steelers employ Smith-Schuster as more of an all-around weapon, getting the ball in his hands for screens, slants and anything else he can handle.

The Steelers like the passing game when two tight ends are working. They found something with Vance McDonald late in the season. His role should increase.

Final thought: These are all factors the Steelers must consider because of the money, but having Bell on the team sounds better than any other option. In 2017, his 105 first downs led all NFL players by a margin of seven. He's part of the Steelers' identity. With or without Bell, the Steelers have a chance to win thanks to Roethlisberger at quarterback. But Roethlisberger himself would prefer to win with Bell. A few million won't break the Steelers' plans.