Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert gave something of a prophetic comment at the NFL Scouting Combine, pointing out the increased emphasis on the passing game in the collegiate game is affecting the market of running backs both in the draft as well as free agency.
Colbert should know. He's one of a few teams able to feast on second-round running back talent last year. Le'Veon Bell, Eddy Lacy, Giovanni Bernard and Montee Ball were all second-round picks, and all look to be their team's featured runner this coming season. Those runners put up decent if not impressive numbers for on four teams that finished a combined 39-24-1 and won three division titles. The Steelers were the only team to miss the playoffs in that group, and Le'Veon Bell's 96.8 yards a game led the group despite missing three games with injury to start his career.
"I think it’s a result of what’s happening in college football," Colbert told Ed Bouchette in February. "The running backs, for the most part in a lot of offenses … are not emphasized as much, so you don’t get to see as much production or dominance. So, you maybe don’t see a top running back, but several were taken in the second round and they ended up being productive players for their teams. If there is a great running back he’ll still go in the first round, regardless of what’s happening schematically."
It's not a question of talent as much as it is usage. The dynamic backs are being used more often and multiple backs for specialty packages are being employed. The notion of a three-down running back is what's in peril here, not the position itself. The ones that can catch and run routes at a high level will likely take priority over one who can perform in all phases reasonably well.
The Steelers are visiting with free agent LeGarrette Blount Friday, just a day after Knowshon Moreno (the guy Ball is replacing in Denver in 2014) signed with the Miami Dolphins. Maurice Jones-Drew is said to still be generating some interest, but with the market largely set, the question for the remaining running backs is where they fit the best.
One of them, or someone else (maybe both) will have to fit with the Steelers; a team with virtually no running back depth behind Bell. Expect them to sign a free agent and draft a running back in May.