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Breaking Down the Steelers Team Needs: Part 5, Running Back

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Part 5 of the series. Should Pittsburgh look for depth, or a change of pace weapon?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Article No. 5 on ways the Steelers could improve what should have been a championship caliber roster. The earlier articles were:

This one will continue looking at the offense, and specifically at RB where the great LeVeon Bell has left for his dream of pie in the sky. Against all expectations the team’s production at the position did not dip too much because of twin picks in 2017 (James Conner) and 2018 (Jaylen Samuels). They were drafted to be the #2 and #3 guys respectively, but both have proven able to take a step up. Here is the entire current roster, excluding the team’s theoretical right to franchise Lev Bell again:

  • James Conner. Grade: “Budding Superstar.” If he isn’t Leveon Bell, he’s the next best thing. And he might be just as good or [gasp!] better when the stories get written 20 years from now.
  • Jaylen Samuels. Grade: “Starter, and he was only a rookie!” Was there a noticeable step down when the Steelers moved from Conner to Samuels? Yes, obviously. But don’t forget how much Conner had improved after his own fitful and halting rookie season. Samuels looks like a definite keeper.
  • Stevan Ridley. Grade: “Backup.” He does the job but the team would lean heavily on Big Ben if Ridley was pushed into being the starter. The occasional bout of fumbleitis is probably his biggest flaw.
  • Rosie Nix. Grade: “Fullback is NOT on the Board. Period.” Yes, I am biased. Rosie Nix was one of my draft crushes back in the day and I gloat about that to this very day [See?]. He’s also one of the best special teams aces in recent memory.

The main question here is what the team should look for. Lev Bell, Conner and Samuels have enough in common to say there is a Steelers prototype for the bell cow Running Back. The team values size but asks those bigger men to keep their weight down for added quickness. The preferred style requires patience and burst through the hole as it cracks open, while busting the hole open is secondary. (That may change with the surprise departure of RB coach James Saxon, but why speculate about the team changing an approach that’s worked?) Vision, contact balance, and the strength to break tackles are essential, and pass catching just as much so. RB’s won’t start if they can’t help in pass protection too, but that is a skill the team assumes it can teach. Finally, no one denegrates speed but it hasn’t been as important to Pittsburgh as it seems to be for other teams.

What are the other prototypes? Let’s call them the “Change of Pace” guy whose main assets are speed and agility, and the “Power Back” who will physically create a yard or two when the line hasn’t made that easy.

The Steelers have two Steeler Type RB’s plus Ridley, who also fits that mold better than the others. Should the team look for more of the very successful same, or broaden its scope to include a different way to attack? Here is a list of the Round 3-4 talent from the initial BTSC Big Board that Nick Farabaugh and I have been compiling. Please note that Round 1 and 2 talents have been artificially dropped to 3:01 on the grounds that Pittsburgh should not spend a pick on RB until Round 3 at the soonest. That creates an artificial cluster that a neutral, all-teams Board would certainly spread out. [fn]

And since names alone aren’t a lot of help...

  • 3:01 RB Darrell Henderson, Memphis. 5’9”, 200 lbs. The catch-me-if-you-can king of the 2019 draft class.
  • 3:01 RB Josh Jacobs, Alabama. 5’10”, 216 lbs. The #1 Running Back on most Boards. Jacobs is an electric playmaker who can break any run with pure speed while still delivering the wood on impact. There is not a lot of film to show his prowess in pass protection but he has looked like an able receiver when used that way. Jacobs also comes with one of those tough, poverty-stricken backstories that make you believe in his fundamental grit. Here is a solid write-up from the Luke Easterling.
  • 3:01 RB David Montgomery, Iowa St. 5’11”, 216 lbs. He needs to work on his receiving and lacks breakaway speed but other than that he fits the Steeler mold to a tee. Tough, hard running, patient, and hard to bring down. This October scouting profile describes him as “a shiftier version of James Conner,” a description this gif-supported October scouting report would agree with.
  • 3:12 RB Damien Harris, Alabama. 5’11”, 213 lbs. A 5-star recruit who lacks explosiveness but has just about everything else you’d want including receiver-like abilities in the passing game.
  • 3:12 RB Elijah Holyfield, Georgia. 5’11”, 216 lbs. Evander’s son shares his famous work ethic and is good in all the subtle ways like shifty quickness, contact balance, toughness, contact balance, vision and determination.
  • 3:12 RB Miles Sanders, Penn St. 5’11”, 211 lbs. A big play threat with good speed and great agility who’s also a decent blocker. Mild downgrade for inconsistent vision and unproven ability as a receiver.
  • 3:12 RB Darwin Thompson, Utah State. 5’8”, 200 lbs. A prospect who can legitimately dream of becoming the next Tarik Cohen or Dion Lewis. Short, yes, but he is also stout, strong and has some of the best contact balance in the class. Add in his proven receiving ability and Thompson projects to be a fantastic change of pace back if he can stand the rigors of the NFL game.
  • 3:24 RB Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma. 6’1”, 219 lbs. Anderson has shown more as a receiver, less as a blocker, is a bit on the long-and-lean side, and could be questioned for coming out of a wide open spread offense, but overall he is another fine prospect for a RB similar to Conner. Grade lowered for an injury red flag (3 season enders, ow!) Here is a good December scouting profile.
  • 3:24 RB Justice Hill, Okla. St. 5’10”, 190 lbs. A really fine overall prospect who’s just a bit smaller than you’d hope, which forces him to wriggle, twist, and squirm through tiny cracks rather than moving the pile. This goes to a good, four-reviewer December scouting profile.
  • 3:24 RB Bryce Love, Stanford. 5’9”, 196 lbs. Small but stout even though he’s been unlucky on the injury front with ankles & etc, the most recent being a mild tear to his ACL from which he hopes to return in time for the Combine. Has breakaway speed and elusiveness that is almost elite but the contact balance has been so-so. Could be a bargain if the injuries held him back and are not going to be a constant moving forward.
  • 3:24 RB Jordan Scarlett, Florida. 5’10”, 213 lbs. A speed demon with some of the best balance in the draft.
  • 4:01 RB RyQuell Armstead, Temple. 5’11”, 216 lbs. A feisty and powerful RB who simply won’t go down on first contact. Has also flashed decent pass blocking and receiving ability, but isn’t the most agile guy and has some bouts of fumbleitis. Our own CHISAP knew him as a boy and certifies that he is a hard working kid with a track background and top notch locker room characteristics.
  • 4:01 RB Devin Singletary, Florida Atl. 5’9”, 200 lbs. Unbelievable production that needs to be discounted for irregular competition and the inflation of a spread offense, though he’s played very well against the better competition too. Very elusive with great jump cuts, patience, and contact balance. Moderate breakaway speed. So durable that tread on the tires may be a concern.
  • 4:01 RB Benny Snell, Kentucky. 5’10”, 223 lbs. Turns no yards into one and three yards into five, but unlikely to break any run into 20. A good, hard driving tough guy and leader who also knows how to succeed without relying on that power.
  • 4:01 RB Mike Weber, Ohio St. 5’10”, 215 lbs. A good, well rounded back with quickness, power, receiving ability and vision. Injuries ruined 2017 but he bounced back well in 2018.
  • 4:01 RB James Williams, Wash. St. 5’11”, 195 lbs. A classic receiving weapon out of the backfield who possess wonderful hands, contact balance, and a solid combination of speed and quickness. A tough minded, hard driving player too who will be a fan favorite. But he really is on the slighter side, would get pounded to bits if asked to be a bell cow back, and can only hope to cut block if he has to pick up a blitzing linebacker. The Patriots’ James White is a good pro comparison. Here is a January scouting profile.
  • 4:16 RB Tony Brooks-James, Oregon. 5’9”, 190 lbs. A speed demon and breakaway threat with just about everything you want in a RB but consistent vision. He has also become a dynamic receiver who can line up anywhere.
  • 4:16 RB Karan Higdon, Michigan. 5’10”, 202 lbs. A good, patient runner who hits the hole hard and has some big play ability, Higdon is significantly smaller than the recent Steeler model, a fact that raises questions about his long term durability and his ability to pass block. No obvious reasons to question his hands but he was rarely used as a receiver, even on a team that could use one. A genuine boost to this RB class, here is a New Year’s scouting profile.
  • 4:16 RB Wes Hills, Slippery Rock. 6’2”, 215 lbs. A small school star from a school just north of the Burgh, Hills has been all but impossible for D-II tacklers to handle. Fantastic contact balance, great vision, good speed, and a sophisticated ability to use his blockers are the high points. Some question his overall agility and athleticism, his skills as a receiver are unknown, and his blocking is… Let’s be nice and call it “D-II”. Our own CHISAP knew him as a High Schooler and says he really is an NFL-caliber athlete. “He’s also a great kid who overcame a lot of hardship to get to where he is.”

The offensive holes may be few and far between but the Steelers will look to fill them. It might be on the O-line, especially if one of the current players serves notice that he plans to retire in the foreseeable future, or the team doctors suggest that the recent spate of injuries suffered by Marcus Gilbert and Jerald Hawkins are likely to continue. It might be a bargain steal on yet another receiving weapon. But the most likely target will be that RB #3 spot.

Which direction would you go, and who would you hope to get? Let us know in the Comments (with due understanding that a lot of those 3:01 and 3:12 grades would be a solid round higher if Conner or Samuels gets abducted by aliens on his way to the gym). For that matter, please answer this question that Nick Farabaugh and I have been bouncing around: Should the Steelers pick any RB before Round 4 given the current roster and situation? If the consensus is “No” we can install a hard floor and move all the earlier names to a group at 4:01.

[FN] For those who don’t know, we organize the BTSC Big Board by a grade called “Highest Value”. An HV of 1:20 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 20 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:12 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade rather than where a player is expected to go; but it’s balanced by never, ever pushing a grade up because of need. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent and organized alphabetically.