First of all, let's be clear that Willie Parker will, and should be the starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers not only in 2007, but in subsequent years as well. I wouldn't say he's a mercurial talent, but I would say he has the tools to be a top 5-10 back in this league for at least 3-5 more years.
Despite his consistent efforts in 2005 and 2006, many still believe that the Steelers need an extra body to spell Parker throughout the season. The Sporting News for example, believes the OLB and RB positions are the positions most likely to be targeted by the Steelers this offseason.
Of the available running backs on the market this spring, who would we most like to acquire? The most desirable commodity on the market is Michael Turner, LaDanian Tomlinson's back-up in San Diego the past three years. He'll be far too expensive for the Steelers though, as Turner has proven his abilities almost every time he has touched the football. There's Jamaal Lewis, but he too will command too much money, and also would be a malcontent in a back-up role. He's also a Raven and a criminal, so let's scratch him off the list.
The common train of thought is that the Steelers need a big, bruising back to pick up tough yards in short-yardage situations. People seem to think Parker is frail, and while I disagree with that assesment, it would be nice to not have our feature back take the requisite physical beatings that accompany the niche of a short-yardage back.
If the Steelers do in fact go down that path, the biggest names available are Mike Alstott, who Mike Tomlin got to know and work with in Tampa Bay; Ron Dayne, who had his moments in Houston and New York, but has been largely disappointing since winning the Heisman at the University of Wisconsin; there's also T.J. Duckett, who the Steelers tried to acquire last year on draft day. Duckett was a bust in Washington last year, but he got lost in the shuffle between Clinton Portis and the emerging Ledell Betts.
These guys may be glitzy names, but I contend that the Steelers would be better off focusing on the defensive side of the football. I just don't think it's money well-spent to pay for a free agent whose role is merely to carry the ball in short-yardage situations. If the Steelers are so convinced that Willie Parker can't be an every-down back in this league, why not draft another RB to play along side of Fast Willie. The Chicago Bears are a team who has taken this route. So are the Cowboys.
Many believe that employing a two-back approach is the way to win in today's NFL. After all, of the four teams that made the Conference Championship Game Round, all had multiple threats at running-back. The Patriots had Corey Dillon and Lawrence Maroney; the Colts ran with Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai; the Saints utilized Reggie Bush and Deuce McCalister; and the Bears ran the ball with both Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones.
So, in order to be successful, you need two running backs. Right? Not so fast. Yes, those four teams were indeed successful with two running backs, but are any of those names in the same mold as the running backs mentioned as possible pick-ups for the Steelers? No, they're not. Cedric Benson, Dominic Rhodes, Reggie Bush, and Corey Dillon all bring a dimension to the game that runners like Ron Dayne, T.J. Duckett and Mike Alstott do not. Dayne, Duckett, and Alstott are role-players, gap-stoppers with limited capabilities due to their size and/or age. The other group consists of versatile play-makers capable of being the every-down guy in the case of an injury.
So, I for one, am hoping that the Steelers don't waste their time and money signing a guy who is past his physical prime and will likely carry the ball fewer than 100 times this season. Let's either invest in the future at the position (not feebly attempt to patch-up the situation in the short-term), or more strongly put our faith in Willie Parker and address other areas of the team that most certainly need to be upgraded.