PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The “to-do” list for Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin heading into the offseason is pretty extensive.
Finding a replacement for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is not on it.
Rooney said Tuesday he anticipates the two-time Super Bowl winner returning for a 14th season in 2017. Roethlisberger said last week he needed to evaluate things before committed to coming back to the AFC North champions. Rooney spoke to the franchise’s all-time passing leader and while Rooney would prefer to keep the specifics of the conversation private, he wasn’t alarmed by Roethlisberger mulling his future after the Steelers were blown out by New England in the AFC championship game.
“I think he’s at that stage in his career that those are thoughts I think you have,” Rooney said. “I personally expect that he’ll be back but that’s going to be his decision.”
The Steelers went 11-5 and won nine straight games following a 4-5 start to reach conference title game for the first time in six years. Rooney doesn’t believe in incremental progress, saying the team will have to start over at square one next season. Still, he’s hopeful the playoff experience will help a roster littered with young players _ particularly on defense _ and indicated the team will do everything it can to keep the most important components of its dynamic offense happy.
That includes making sure running back Le’Veon Bell, set to become a free agent in March, stays in town.
“Le’Veon had a great year and he certainly one of the top backs in the league if not the best back in the league,” Rooney said. “He’s somebody we hope to have around for a little while longer that’s for sure.”
Bell averaged an NFL-high 157 yards from scrimmage on 28 touches during the regular season then ran for a combined 337 yards in playoff victories over Miami and Kansas City. The workload appeared to catch up with him late. He was limited to just six carries for 20 yards in the loss to New England due to a groin issue, the third straight year the 24-year-old Bell finished a season on the sideline due to injury. Rooney isn’t worried about a pattern developing.
“I wouldn’t say we have a big concern about Le’Veon’s physical abilities or stability,” Rooney said. “He’s a strong young player and I think he’ll keep getting better.”
Pittsburgh could place the franchise tag on Bell then work on a new deal, though there are plenty of moving parts. Rooney isn’t sure what path the team will take, saying simply Bell is “certainly a player that we would like to have on the team for a while.”
The same goes for All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. Brown became just the second player in NFL history to catch 100 passes in four straight seasons but also drew a strong rebuke from coach Mike Tomlin for livestreaming 17-plus minutes of the team’s raucous postgame locker room following a playoff victory over Kansas City. It was the latest in a series of “AB being AB” moves by the prolific if occasionally eccentric star.
Rooney called them “little annoyances, with the emphasis on little” and in no way has discouraged the team from keeping Brown in the fold. Brown is entering the final season of the six-year, $42-million contract he signed in 2012, a deal that now looks like one of the biggest bargains in recent memory. The Steelers have found a way to give Brown a bit of a pay bump each of the last two springs and an extension will be a priority over the next few months, a common practice for a team that places an emphasis on developing and retaining its core players.
“I think he’s somebody that his teammates like to have on the team,” Rooney said. “He’s a hard worker so he’s another player we’re hoping to address his contract and have him hear for the long term.”
Other highlights from the end of a season Rooney said “had a lot of positives.”
_ Developing a more consistent pass rush is a must after the Steelers barely touched Patriots star Tom Brady in the championship game. Rooney is open to 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison playing at least one more season and it’s likely outside linebacker is an area of focus heading up to the draft.
_ Rooney said the team has been contacted by the NFL about Bell not being placed on the injury report before the AFC title game. “I feel once we provide them all of the information it’s a satisfactory situation,” Rooney said. “I don’t expect any major issues there.”
_ Wide receiver Martavis Bryant has applied for reinstatement from his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy but Rooney cautioned “there’s a way to go in terms of really understanding where he is and understanding where he is in relation to our team” Rooney added a level of trust will need to be rebuilt.