Per dollar, it's easily the Steelers' best positional unit.
Pittsburgh has been stockpiling talent at running back, a position that's become interchangeable in the NFL over the years.
Gone are the days of league MVPs Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson. The high volume passing era has led to the stable philosophy, as opposed to the pure prize back.
Because, well, running back is a classic example of the rhetorical question "why have one when you can get two for less than twice the price?"
Injuries become a major factor in a salary cap league. It's hard to pay, say, Adrian Peterson upwards of $9 million guaranteed, only to watch him blow out an ACL. And when he's one huge part of your offense (read: Chiefs, Kansas City, Charles, Jamaal), you can get into some trouble without having talent in place to keep the ship moving forward in the event (likelihood?) of injury.
Enter Rashard Mendenhall. An excellent all-around back, but the delta between Mendenhall's highest end and Isaac Redman's, Pittsburgh's second running back, is not as high as many other positions.
When Will Mendenhall Return?
In speaking with Middle Tennessee State strength coach Jason Spray earlier this week, he said running back is one of the more difficult positions to predict a timetable for return after an ACL tear. Due to the unpredictable movement necessary for the position (planting and cutting, making tacklers miss, etc.), it's hard to gauge when he could return. Much of it is going to be about mental strength and resolve as well.
Rehabilitation from an injury like that is painful, arduous and boring. It's a constant grind. Mendenhall is a phenomenal athlete, but the mental endurance necessary to make a successful return on the earlier end of the 9-12 month rehab process is tough.
I think the Steelers are going to have to plan on Mendenhall not being ready for significant action until at least Week 6 - incidentally, that's the week after the Steelers bye, and the last week a player can stay on the Physically Unable to Perform list. After that, he must be placed on the IR or released. The Steelers will take as much time as they can to give him a chance to contribute later in the season.
Who will fill his place?
The unofficial BTSC hero, Isaac Redman, of course. But he won't be a three-down back. The quartet of followers, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey, going into camp, look to battle it out for two positions behind him. Look for one of them to be cut after training camp and, if he clears waivers, to be placed on the practice squad. Of the remaining three, look for two of them to earn game day roster spots each week.
Each of them comes with a positive and a negative element. Dwyer has the skill, but has struggled with his weight and focus (he's in the midst of the most important offseason of his career). Clay has 10 career carries (and a touchdown) while spending little time on the active roster, and also had weight concerns, but stepped up last season when his number was called (41 yards and a score in Week 16). Batch is versatile and brings a good combination of speed and strength, but is just finishing an ACL rehab project of his own, and has barely any more experience than a rookie. Rainey is lightning fast and boasts special teams ability, but is the smallest in terms of height and weight, and likely won't be an option between the tackles.
Any of those evaluations are subject to change, and who stands out among the others depends on the work they put in this offseason.
Is This His Last Year in Pittsburgh?
You never know what a year will bring. As it is, is the most talented running back physically. While neither the scheme nor his overall health in the last few years ever suggested he could lead the league in rushing, Mendenhall has shown he's capable of being a lead back in the NFL. It always comes down to cost, though, and with Redman set to hit restricted free agency in 2013, as well as the low contract price of the other four, it isn't likely the Steelers are in a position to give Mendenhall much of a raise.
Most of the decision will be based on his ability to come back from his injury. It doesn't seem, though, in May of 2012, he'll be back next season, just based on the price tag he'll command in free agency.
What happened to Mewelde Moore?
He's still currently a free agent, and likely was asked by the Steelers to stay in shape in case the need arises. Salary cap issues and the progress of younger (and more inexpensive) players led the Steelers to leave Moore unsigned, but rest assured, the Steelers have him in their minds and will make a move if if doesn't appear any of them can bring the all-around experience Moore can.
Moore has been relied on for similar roles in the past, and is said to be a favorite of Steelers coach MIke Tomlin. It's not a stretch to envision a scenario in which none of the younger backs are separating themselves from the pack, so one of them is released and Moore is signed. It's a scenario for which the Steelers must be prepared.
How Will Todd Haley's Offense Utilize the Running Back?
If Haley's teams have been anything, they've been fairly different from one to the next. He's shown the ability to maximize the skill on his roster and use it to the best of their strengths.
In Kansas City, it was the multi-purpose threat of Charles both rushing and receiving. In Arizona, it was the veteran savvy of Kurt Warner combining with the skill of WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Recently, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger said Haley is "all about the no-huddle and using our wide-receiver weapons and throwing the ball and stuff like that." Seems appropriate for the coach to speak about the passing game to the quarterback, and obviously, the wide receivers will get their share of targets. Look for Haley to incorporate the running back, whomever that may be, to catch high-percentage throws in an effort to both gain something on every passing play possible, and to reduce the number of hits Roethlisberger takes.