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2019 NFL Draft: Quality Running Back options exist for the Steelers in the NFL Draft

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The Steelers actually need a RB3. What does the 2019 NFL Draft have to offer?

NFL: Pro Bowl Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

At this time of year it’s easy to get so excited over the potential for high-impact draft picks that we sometimes forget how solid the Steelers really are. If the 11th Passover Plague fell tomorrow on the entirety of the NFL draft class, Pittsburgh would be one of the few teams able to field a playoff quality roster right away. The positions we’ve focused on - Mack ILB, Corner, Edge, WR, Safety - are not empty holes waiting to be filled. To the contrary, they are all all capably manned with solid, NFL-quality starters. We obsess about them because it’s easy to see how big a difference “superior” would make when compared to “solid”.

There are two exceptions that have gotten less attention. The team does not have a Tight End to replace Jesse James, nor a backup Running Back to play behind the oft-injured James Conner and the still-developing Jaylen Samuels. I wrote a January article on the class as a whole that still seems to work but the time seems to be right for a supplement that will examine the options a little closer to draft day.

Players Who Will Go Too Early

The front office has to be worried about James Conner’s ability to play an entire season and still have juice for the playoffs. He has a history of missing games and, to be blunt, that worry exists for all backs who take such a major and significant pounding each weak. That said, we would have heard about any serious issue and for that reason I am going to arbitrarily remove every RB prospect who appears in my personal list of the top 75 prospects of 2019:

  • Josh Jacobs, Alabama
  • Miles Sanders, Penn State {Visit}

Yup. That’s it. This is why people say the 2019 RB class is relatively weak. The top end talent is missing. But there is some very good depth. I have twelve players listed in the 76-150 range; i.e., mid-3rd to the mid-5th value. I will list them all below along with a few others, but I am only going to spend time on a few personal favorites.

Realistic 3:19 Targets

  • David Montgomery, Iowa State - The first realistic prospect to consider... Well, sort of realistic. Many pundits would say Montgomery is “guaranteed” to get picked before the mid-3rd, but I found that word just a little too strong to swallow and decided to include him anyway. Montgomery’s skill set earns regular comparisons to no less than the original James Conner, with DM being a little shiftier and JC a little more powerful. The only argument against him comes from that very similarity - would the team benefit more from adding a different type of back versus another guy who can shoulder the full load if Conner goes down? Perhaps we should instead go to the Walmart Draft Shelf and look for...
  • Darrell Henderson, Memphis - A/k/a the change of pace back who averaged no less than nine (9!) yards per carry in college. That’s not an exaggeration! He really did. Henderson has a classic short but big build (5’8⅜”, 208 lbs.) and would have been on the Ain’t Gonna Happen List until the Combine fouled up his narrative with a 4.49 dash rather than the 4.3-something people expected, and then made that seem viable with similarly average numbers in the other tests. That raises some question marks but in the end I will go with the tape. Henderson is my #1 jitterbug RB of the class if the Steelers want to spend a high pick.
  • Justice Hill, Oklahoma {Meeting at Combine} - The #2 change of pace back comes with narrative that’s 180 degrees opposite from Henderson’s. On tape Justice Hill looks like a guy who is always on the verge of being special but never... quite... gets there. Enter the Combine, athletic testing that revealed a truly elite athlete, and now everyone has to scurry back to see why someone that talented failed to put up an obscene number like nine yards per carry. My take (compiled from reading several scouting reports) is that he lacks some of that weird 360 degree vision that lets a back like Conner make little jukes in the hole to escape a potential tackler no normal human would notice. That would limit his ability to be a true RB1 (if I am right), but of course Pittsburgh wouldn’t be drafting him to fill that role. Here he would be an out-in-space alternative, where he could see what’s around him, and in that capacity he could be as good as anyone. Pittsburgh has Jaylen Samuels to be the backup workhorse, so this is a fit that works.

Realistic 4:20 and 5:03 Targets - The Snake-Bit Stars and “The Other Guy”

  • Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma - Rodney Anderson would have good cause to argue that he is the #1 workhorse RB prospect in the class if he had not suffered season-ending injuries in 2015, 2016 and 2018. But he did, and that gives his detractors easy ammunition: “He’s a Fragile Freddie who will miss part of his rookie season anyway.” I see the point but the counterarguments are just as strong. The 2015 injury was a broken leg. They happen, and they heal. The 2016 injury was a fluky cracked vertebra - not serious in the big sense but you don’t mess with things that close to the spine. 2018 ended with a typical-for-nowadays ACL tear. None of those have any relation to each other, which lets his supporters argue: “He’s Bad Luck Louie, not Fragile Freddie, and there’s no reason to think it will continue.” At the start of Day 3 I will go with the latter argument. Heal him up 100%, get him into an NFL conditioning program that will make him stronger than ever, and then you may have someone even better than Conner to share the carries. But didn’t we say above that a change of pace guy might fit even better than someone who’d compete to be the RB1? Well in that case let’s consider...
  • Bryce Love, Stanford - A/k/a the other snake-bit super-talent of the RB class. Others might object to Rodney Anderson’s claim that he’s the best 3-down back of the class, but no one would dispute that a healthy Bryce Love (5’8⅞”, 200 lbs.) would be it’s premier jitterbug. Love ended 2017 as the Heisman Trophy runner-up based on a single season that included 2,118 rushing yards and 19 scores on the ground. Egad! It’s no wonder he began 2018 as the preseason Heisman favorite. So how in the world did a young man with that much talent drop to the point where he is going to be available on Day 3 of the 2019 draft? Two answers: first, a nasty and nagging ankle injury that crippled him all season, and then an ACL tear on December 1st. Period. Okay, I get it. The ankle shows how much he relies on physical gifts and how vulnerable he might be to the violence of an NFL season. But shouldn’t he get equal credit for fighting through the pain week after week? As for the ACL, it was such a minor tear that he was (in the end fruitlessly) hoping to show his stuff at the Combine. Modern medical science has gotten to the point where I fully expect him to be as good as new sometime during his rookie season. So my bottom line is this: change of pace backs exist to threaten knockout blows totally different from the body work imposed by your RB1. Bryce Love might be a poor bet if you were asking him to be The Man year in and year out, but there is no one better for the 10-12 carries per game job! I’m all in if he’s going to be the lightning to Conner’s thunder. How would you like to be a defensive coordinator who had to plan for a Pittsburgh running attack that could seamlessly shift from one of those guys to the other?
  • Damien Harris, Alabama {Visit} - Harris carried the water for Alabama all year until the biggest games arrived and they turned to Josh Jacobs. Jacobs played better when he was in - obviously so - but that should not negate how much Harris accomplished. He does not stand out in any particular way but he is solid all the way around. Anyone who profiles as an on-the-line RB1/2 equals just about the best RB3 anyone could hope to get. Doesn’t he? I do not think that Damien Harris offers the same upside as Rodney Anderson or Bryce Love, but he’s stayed healthy (even at Alabama!), his floor is extremely high, and I’d be happy to see him in Black & Gold.

The Next Tier

  • Myles Gaskin, Washington - A productive runner and a great receiver, but he just doesn’t spark any special joy when I think of him as our RB3. I can fall in love with the next James Conner clone - a prospect with the ceiling to be an all-star 3-down back - but I’d prefer a change of pace talent to someone who projects more like the next Jaylen Samuels. One is great, but one is also enough.
  • James Williams, Washington State - Think of New England’s James White: A tough minded, hard driving receiver out of the backfield who can also do some true RB stuff when you need him too. Probably my favorite of this little trio. The description may sound like Jaylen Samuels but Williams is a shiftier and quicker version.
  • Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic - Everyone’s favorite scat rat except mine. Call it taste rather than an actual grade. I just think he’s a bit too small (5’7½”, 203 lbs.) and I discount his stats a bit too much because of the level of competition and the wide open system he played in.

Depth That Would Make The Team

  • Travis Homer, Miami {Visit} - I’d have him in the tier above if there weren’t some significant ball security concerns. Not so much a jitterbug as a slasher of the kind who excels in outside zone systems. Float... wait... and then zap!
  • Alex Barnes, Kansas State (6’⅜”, 226 lbs.); L.J. Scott, Michigan State (6’⅜”, 227 lbs.); RyQuell Armstead, Temple (5’11¼”, 220 lbs.); and Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska (5’11⅞”, 233 lbs.) - Size XL workhorse backs need to find that extra something special, and who just might do it if the Steelers’ patented ‘drop to just Size L’ method works as well for them as it did for Bell and Conner. All four are special athletes (Armstead a little less so) with average tape that supporters explain away by pointing to poor offensive lines and/or system fits.
  • Karan Higdon, Michigan; and Dexter Williams, Notre Dame; and Mike Weber, Ohio State {Visit}; and Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M - At the risk of damning with faint praise, all four of these prospects make me think of those well rounded RB’s who enjoy 5-10 year careers in the NFL and are adored by the fan base - until they get on the field and prove why they’ve always been a backup. Good, sound players but unlikely to grow into more.
  • Darwin Thompson, Utah; and Jordan Scarlett, Florida {Visit}; and Tony Pollard, Memphis - Day 3 fliers as jitterbug, multipurpose offensive weapons with big play ability but enough question marks to lower their chance of success. Thompson has the best tape; Scarlett met with the team; and Pollard is better described as an “Offensive Weapon” than a “Running Back.” His stock falls on most Boards because no one is sure about how to describe him.
  • Wes Hills, Slippery Rock - BTSC’s local, small school darling. To quote the BTSC Big Board:

Fantastic contact balance, great vision, good speed, and a sophisticated ability to use his blockers are the high points. The questions go to his overall agility and athleticism, unknown skills as a receiver, and blocking that is… Let’s be nice and call it “D-II”.

Well, there you it. I would be floored if Pittsburgh ended the 2019 draft without snagging one of those prospects. Which ones would you prefer, and which do you think are most likely? Share your thoughts in the Comments.