There’s been a fair amount of discussion already on the pros and cons of signing free agent running back Ahmad Bradshaw, but I wanted to make a fleshed-out argument for what I believe to be a savvy, value-oriented signing.
But before I do, I need to make a small disclaimer: Bradshaw has been one of my favorite non-Steelers for a long, long time. I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere during his rookie year, I fell in love with the way this guy played the game, and have followed his career to some degree ever since. Does this mean I’ve lost objectivity? Perhaps. But on a website driven largely by the passions that fandom brings, I hope you all can indulge in my biases long enough to read this article.
Enough chit-chat, let’s begin the case for Ahmad, with a bullet...
Bradshaw’s skill set perfectly complements the existing talent the Steelers have at the running back position, and it fits precisely the type of offense Todd Haley and Jack Bicknell Jr. wish to run.
Ahmad Bradshaw Career Highlights Package (via NYGiantCentral)
When talking about Ahmad Bradshaw’s skill set, it’s tempting to point to the above video and simply remark: "enough said." Seriously, for anyone wondering what Bradshaw can do in any facet of the game, this video is amazingly comprehensive and exceedingly well organized (if you view the video on Youtube, NYGiantCentral gives a great breakdown of which types of plays are highlighted and where they occur in the video description).
But for those who don’t have time to wade through twenty minutes of highlights, let me sum it up: Bradshaw is a patient runner who excels at reading blocking in front of him, and he’s got the quick feet/excellent change-of-direction skills to take advantage as opportunities present themselves. He’s also a very good receiver out of the backfield, with soft hands and very good instincts after the catch (especially on screen passes).
In short: Bradshaw is ideally suited to run behind athletic blockers in a zone-based scheme, and to participate in a creative passing attack that actively involves running backs as pass play targets. He can provide the big play-potential the Steelers have rarely seen since Willie Parker’s sudden and dramatic decline, not to mention the consistency they’ve lacked since Mendenhall’s ACL injury. As a smaller, more agile back, he would provide the "dash" counterpart to Redman and Dwyer’s "smash," giving the Steelers a varied backfield that could attack opponents effectively in several ways. These skills are all the more important, because...
Redman and Dwyer are not feature running backs, but rather complementary ballcarriers with significant holes in their respective skill sets.
While some have argued Jonathan Dwyer still deserves an opportunity to prove he can handle the starting role, I think last season provided more than enough tape to gauge the potential effectiveness of both running backs as feature ballcarriers, and in my opinion both players were found wanting in that capacity.
Let me clarify that I like both backs in supporting roles. Isaac Redman has underrated vision, frequently finding creases in even the most mediocre blocking, which is why he’s consistently found success in short-yardage situations. Dwyer is surprisingly nimble despite his size, and when he does find a hole he hits it very hard, which is why he gets so many rumbles through opposing secondaries. Further, I suspect both backs (especially Redman) were hampered by injury last year more than we realize, and I firmly believe that both have yet to reach their peak as ballcarriers.
Unfortunately, I’m unconvinced the weaknesses both backs exhibited last year will ever be alleviated to any significant degree. Redman will probably never have the speed or acceleration to consistently break off even medium-length gains. I’m not sure Dwyer will be able to significantly improve his vision or conditioning, either, and I suspect he may continue to be a streaky performer throughout his career. Coupled with these weaknesses, neither back seems particularly dangerous as receiving options (though both have flashed competence in that regard), and neither have the skill-set to break off long runs or make defenders miss in the open field.
Tomlin and Colbert have made rather pointed comments about the collective skill at the running back position, so I probably don’t have to sell you on Redman and Dywer’s limitations. Many have assumed that this talent gap will be addressed in the draft. However...
This year’s draft class is particularly weak at running back, especially with regards to upper-echelon feature backs.
Outside of Eddie Lacy, nearly all of the backs in this year’s draft class are missing major pieces to their game (and I’m not even convinced Lacy’s all that special). And of the backs that do present a complete package, many (like Christine Michael or Marcus Lattimore) come with serious question marks, while others (like Montee Ball or Stephan Taylor) seem to exhibit little upside.
I think there’s a very real possibility the Steelers could find themselves in one of two equally distasteful situations if they spend a mid-round pick on a running back: 1) they pick an undersized speed back -- think Jonathan Franklin or Kenjon Barner -- and wind up with a marginal role player for passing situations, perpetuating the backfield-by-committee approach, or 2) they pick a bigger back with athletic skills but sub-par vision -- think Le’Veon Bell or Knile Davis -- essentially helping themselves to another round of Dwyer.
I think there are talented backs in this draft, and I assume more than a few from this class will step forward and make me look stupid in a year’s time. But right now, it’s tough for me to view this group of ballcarriers as anything but a minefield, and that risk seems even greater when one considers Ahmad Bradshaw’s considerable talents relative to the pack: of the Steelers’ commonly mocked potential third and fourth round picks, Bradshaw seems tougher than Andre Ellington, demonstrates better feet than Marcus Lattimore, is faster than Montee Ball, has better vision than Le’Veon Bell and exhibits more team-first spirit than Christine Michael. He’s a well-rounded professional amongst incomplete prospects.
Let's also remember that for every Alfred Morris and Arian Foster, there are a couple dozen other late-round/un-drafted free agent fliers at running back that never see the field in any meaningful capacity. Sometimes teams beat the odds betting on late-round talent and wind up with an every-down stud...and sometimes they wind up with Redman, Dwyer and Baron Batch.
With an experienced, proven and relatively cheap veteran talent potentially at their disposal, the Steelers may be better off sparing themselves a mid-round running back draft pick because...
The Steelers have so many pressing short- and long-term draft needs, and not enough picks to address them all.
The Steelers are most likely looking for an immediate contributor at wide receiver even if Emmanuel Sanders winds up staying in Pittsburgh. They need a long-term solution at inside linebacker, and preferably one that can see the field sooner rather than later.
...and they probably would like some starters-in-waiting at safety, nose tackle, outside linebacker, and left guard.
...aaaand what if they’d prefer more competition at cornerback behind Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen? They can’t be happy with the depth behind the recovering Heath Miller, can they? And are they really sold on Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward as the future at defensive end, or the depth behind them once Brett Keisel retires? What about tackle depth behind two relatively unproven second-round picks in Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert?
Whew! My math’s not so good, but I count ten very realistic draft positions of varying levels of needs, and that’s not even counting the distinct possibility of doubling up at a position like wide receiver. All that for a team with eight picks that hasn’t demonstrated a propensity to draft and develop starting-caliber talent on a consistent basis in recent years.
Again, if you have the opportunity to alleviate one of your most pressing needs with an established veteran and free up valuable picks for other pressing needs, why not do so? Especially when...
Ahmad Bradshaw’s injury history is not as bad as you think it is.
Quick -- gun to your head, no peeking! -- how many games per year, on average, has Ahmad Bradshaw missed over the course of his career?
The answer, believe it or not: 2. "Ah!" you say, "but what about the last four years, where he’s dealt with three different foot injuries?" That average is actually even better: 1.75 games missed per year.
Just for context, Rashard Mendenhall has averaged 5 1/2 missed games per season over the course of his career, and is almost never described as "injury prone." Put another way: Mendhall averages more missed games per year than Bradshaw has ever missed in a single season (4 games in both 2011 and 2007, his rookie year).
Granted, these figures aren’t perfect indicators of health -- they include games Mendenhall missed while hanging out in Tomlin’s Doghouse of Pain (as well as games Bradshaw spent on the bench during his rookie season). And granted, Mendenhall suffered from two significant freak injuries rather than a series of chronic, smaller injuries. But these stats highlight what I believe is a grievous misconception about Bradshaw’s career: despite his reputation as "injury prone," the guy really does play nearly every week.
I can’t completely minimize the valid concerns many have over his chronic injuries because no one can; sooner or later, Bradshaw will hang up his cleats and retire, and when he does, it will probably be because of his chronic foot issues. But historically speaking, these problems haven’t prevented him from being productive on the field. And they haven’t yet showed signs of slowing him down: last year, despite recurring foot issues, he rushed for over a thousand yards at 4.6 YPC (both better than any Steelers back). And in doing so, he’s displayed a rare trait I think the Steelers don’t have in sufficient quantity...
Ahmad Bradshaw is the kind of fiery competitor the Steelers need to provide veteran leadership.
When I watch Ahmad Bradshaw play football, I can’t help but be reminded of Hines Ward. Like Ward, he’s not the fastest, biggest or strongest player at his position, but he plays with as much guts, energy and determination as anyone in the game. Ask any Giants fan about Bradshaw, and chances are the first comment out of their mouths will be about his undeniable heart and will to compete.
I think the Steelers had been relying more on their recently-retired veterans for that kind of emotional leadership than many players and coaches are willing to acknowledge, particularly with regards to Hines Ward on the offensive side of the ball. The Steelers I saw last year were more finesse that force, and -- outside of Willie Colon’s awkward wriggle on Vontaze Burfict -- most of that finesse seemed to emanate from the offensive side of the ball.
I’m not in the huddle, so I can’t speak with any authority on team dynamics. Maybe I’m completely wrong; maybe Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Maurkice Pouncey are the new wave of veteran leadership the Steelers will harness to take the league by storm in coming years.
But right now, I don’t see anyone on the offensive side of the ball demonstrating the undeniable heart and determination Hines Ward showed on every play during his career. And when I watch Bradshaw lower his 5’10" 215 lb. frame into yet another defender, see him storm the field after yet another week of sitting out practice after practice due to injury, watch him pump up teammates in between plays or animatedly discuss tactics with coaches on the sidelines, I can’t help but wish we had someone like that inspiring the Steelers offense to greater heights.