When you examine the Steelers rookies who likely could come in and make an immediate impact, running back Benny Snell Jr. is at the top of the list, behind only Devin Bush, of course.
Think about it. Which position lends itself to first-year success better than running back? Just give the kid the football and tell him to look for the first hole he sees and burst through that sucker. And if there is no hole, just tell him to use his instincts and ad lib, improvise or simply punish someone. Sure, a rookie running back must be on the details with regards to picking up the blitz (something he may never have had to do in college) or catching the football out of the backfield (see picking up the blitz), but when it comes to the main part of his job, a first-year running back typically doesn’t have to step too far out of his comfort zone.
When that rookie running back steps into a situation such as Snell’s, complete with an offensive line that’s highly-decorated and highly-regarded around the National Football League, it just feels like an exciting way to kick off your professional football career. For a back like Snell, who had 3,873 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns in three seasons at Kentucky, it seems like the perfect situation, a situation that could lead to an Offensive Rookie of the Year-type season.
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to envision Snell getting much of a chance to show off his talents in 2019.
I realize Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has recently made statements to ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio implying the team might change its “Run him until the wheels fall off” philosophy:
“I really think that depends on who that player is. When we drafted Le’Veon, we certainly didn’t have that idea that he would be the featured guy. He forced that with his great play and he was that good, he was durable and he wanted to be on the field. James does too, but you also have to understand if you have two or three guys that can maybe get the same production then let’s make sure we’re covered and have the proper depth.”
I don’t want to call Kevin a liar, but maybe his memory is a bit fuzzy. If you recall how the team handled Le’Veon Bell the moment he was drafted in the second round out of Michigan State in 2013, it was clear he was going to be the guy. Bell came into a situation where there wasn’t another running back on the roster who even approached his abilities.
It’s different in 2019.
Snell is coming into a situation where there is not only a clear-cut number one running back, that clear-cut number one running back may also have an established backup.
The number one running back is obviously third-year man James Conner, who had a breakout year in 2018 to the tune of 1,470 yards from scrimmage—including 973 on the ground and 497 through the air. Conner touched the football a total of 270 times in his sophomore season—215 carries and 55 receptions.
Conner not only had a Pro Bowl year in 2018, he was well-on his way to approaching 2,000 yards from scrimmage before late-season injuries limited his effectiveness, as well as his playing time, as he missed a total of three games down the stretch.
In Conner’s place was Jaylen Samuels, a rookie running back who started three games in December. Samuels wasn’t necessarily a workhorse as a starter—he had a total of 41 carries in those three games—but he did post a whopping 142 rushing yards on 19 carries in a 17-10 victory over the Patriots on December 16.
Samuels also showed himself to be quite adept at catching the football out of the backfield—a skill-set that he was known for coming out of college—as he tallied 26 receptions for 199 yards.
Back to Conner.
Did his play in 2018 prove that he deserves to be the number one running back? Absolutely. Yes, he suffered some injuries, but most running backs do. The question is, if Conner is indeed the team’s number one back, but the powers that be may have had a change of heart regarding running back usage, how much are they willing to reduce Conner’s work-load in 2019? Thirty percent? Much more than that, now you’re dealing with a running back by committee approach, something the Steelers have always seemed allergic to. If Conner’s work-load is reduced by 30 percent, which backup gets the bulk of that 30 percent? Based on last season, it would seem Samuels would get it, especially when you consider his aforementioned aptitude for being a receiving threat.
This isn’t to say Snell couldn’t beat out Samuels for the backup role. But you have to remember Samuels will also be benefiting from the same highly-regarded offensive line as his rookie colleague.
Maybe Snell, with his downhill style, can be the short-yardage and goal line back. Yes, but what do you tell Conner, especially when the offense is nearing the goal line? After all, Conner had 12 rushing touchdowns last year, and a great deal of them were of the goal line variety.
Obviously, injuries may play a factor in how Snell is used during his rookie season, but that would be rather unfortunate for Conner and/or Samuels. If that were to happen, I think Snell will do a fine job as a fill-in. Heck, he might even create a running back controversy.
But, beyond that scenario (a scenario that, as I alluded to, wouldn’t be ideal), it’s hard to envision Benny Snell Jr. making a huge impact in his rookie season.