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Steelers Offseason Needs, Part 1: Running Back

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Will the Steelers target a potential star to carry the ball?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 1 need is obvious: a guaranteed, blue chip, future Hall of Fame quarterback who will push Ben Roethlisberger for snaps, even in his rookie year. Picking at #18 in the second round that quarterback will be...[crickets]. Besides, who’s to say Roethlisberger won’t play for another three years? So let’s ignore that position and move on to the next tier of priorities. The most likely targets at 2:18 (49th overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft appear to be a star running back, a star wide receiver or an infusion into the offensive line. Let’s start with the running backs.

CURRENT RB’s:

* RB-1 James Conner. Age 24, entering Year 4, UFA 2021

* RB-2a Jaylen Samuels. Age 23, entering Year 3, UFA 2022

* RB-2b Benny Snell Jr. Age 21, entering Year 2, UFA 2023

* RB-4 Kerrith Whyte. Age 23, entering Year 2, ERFA 2021

* RB-5 Trey Edmunds. Age 24, entering Year 3, UFA 2021

CURRENT UNDERSTUDY RB’s

* RB-6 Ralph Webb. Age 25. Futures Contract

NOTABLE CAP ISSUES - None

We need to start with a bit of history. Le’Veon Bell was drafted in Round 2 of 2013 and looked like a potential star right away. Then he dropped 10-15 pounds after his rookie season and... KAZAAAM! The extra quickness he gained led to multiple HOF-level years. In 2014, 2015, and 2016 a huge percentage of the offense ran directly through Bell in the form of both runs and passes, with an even bigger percentage when you count his use as a distraction. He only came of the field for puff breaks, and as few of those as possible. Especially since he also excelled as a pass protector.

Every indication said that Mike Tomlin loved that state of affairs. He has said that he dislikes RB-by-committee (“RBC”) approaches philosophically because they interfere with the RB’s ability to get into the flow of a game. There is a pattern to how defenses attack, and to how particular defensive players move and tackle. Coach Tomlin believes that RB’s get stronger as the game goes on, in part, because they figure those patterns out and adapt. Why mess with that process unless you have to?

In 2017 the Steelers tagged Bell and also drafted James Conner to be his backup. Conner looked good but Le’Veon remained the [ahem] bell cow. Then the rookie blew his second MCL in December (opposite knee from the one in college). The injury cost the rest of his season, which turned out to be a disaster because Bell went down just in time for the playoffs. The 1-2 blow at a key position cost Pittsburgh a real chance to finally beat the Patriots.

The Steelers expected 2018 to be a repeat of 2017. They tagged Bell a second time, expecting him to come in and play for the ridiculous amount of salary that required. But good ol’ Lev ruined all calculations by refusing to show up. No problem! Conner took over as the lead back and had a Pro Bowl season. He wasn’t playing at HOF levels like Bell had, but neither had Bell toward the end of 2016. Conner looked like a more than capable #1, and didn’t come with either the price tag or the emotional toll of the disgruntled superstar.

But now the team had a depth problem. Pittsburgh’s front office had prophetically picked a multi-tool, nominal running back (Jaylen Samuels) in Round 5 of the 2018 draft. Bell’s disappearance made him the RB2. Thank heavens it worked out. Conner went down for several games with various bumps and bruises of the vicious NFL kind, but Samuels did a solidly adequate job running the ball and looked even better in the multi-tool role they’d picked him for. It would have been 2017 all over again he’d gotten hurt too.

Moral of the story: whether you believe in bell cows or RBC’s, you need two good RB’s, want three, and it’s best if the multi-tool is your RB4.

Going into 2019 the Steelers knew they were going to be without Bell again, and expected Conner to come back healthy as the RB1. Samuels made a good stopgap as his backup, but they really wanted a true RB2 or two in case of something serious. So the team spent a 4th Round pick on Benny Snell Jr.

Early returns suggest that Snell is to James Conner what Conner was to Lev Bell: a slightly lesser talent in the same general mold of a “big back with more agility than people give him credit for.” Kerrith Whyte came on board later in 2019, as an emergency backup nabbed from the Chicago Bears practice squad. He had been a Round 7 pick but rapidly became a fan favorite as both a kick returner and a change-of-pace scat back totally different from the Bell/Conner/Samuels/Snell mold.

All of which leads to this: the Steelers played 2013-2016 with a superstar from Round 2, moved on to play 2018 with a star from Round 3, and now have capable backups from Round 4, 5, and 7.

Negative Nellies should note that every single one of those players exceeded the expectations accorded to his draft position. Either the Steelers have an extraordinary eye for RB talent, the OL/coaches use RB’s exceptionally well, or both. Regardless, all is not completely rosy. The star – James Conner – has a downright frightening history of injuries. Consider:

  • 2013 (college) – Fought his way on to the field for limited snaps as a college freshman and ended by breaking Tony Dorsett’s team record for yards in a bowl game.
  • 2014 (college) – ACC Player of the Year for the University of Pittsburgh
  • 2015 (college) – Tore his MCL in the season opener, and then got diagnosed with cancer during the rehab process.
  • 2016 (college) – Miraculously returned to the field after surgery to repair the knee, rehab to heal the knee, and also beating the cancer. What a story! But he wasn’t quite the same. Would he ever make a full return? This question depressed his draft stock. Pittsburgh bet on “Yes.”
  • 2017 – Rookie year. Looked great and then tore his 2nd MCL in December.
  • 2018 – Pro Bowl year standing in for Lev Bell. Missed several key games due to various NFL-Impact injuries.
  • 2019 – Missed numerous games due to NFL-Impact injuries.

Everyone loves James Conner the human being. I have a few extra straws on that camel because I pushed so hard for him as a draft prospect. But do we trust him to stay healthy? And – more importantly – is he better viewed as Tomlin’s ideal replacement for Lev Bell? Or as what he was drafted to be; a phenomenal backup who can take over for the headliner without any serious loss of quality?

The point being this: the Pittsburgh Steelers have real room on the roster for a potential star at RB, and no room at all for any lesser talent. But will the team have a shot at that in this draft? The answer is an emphatic “YES”, because there is a large cluster of RB talent with Round 2-3 grades and a downright monstrous cluster of something like twenty WR’s and 15 OT’s with Round 1-2 grades. (It is the TE class that stinks). Those receivers and linemen are going to push the backs down, which should give Pittsburgh some superb choices at 2:18, and some very good options at 3:Comp, 4:19, or 4:23 (the Jaguars pick in exchange for Josh Dobbs).

What follows are some very, very initial grades and descriptions of the RB class. I want to emphasize that these are PRELIMINARY AND FOR THE SAKE OF DISCUSSION. I have watched no film of these players and only a game or two in which some of them appeared. Almost all the descriptions are summaries of what I found with a quick scan of the Internet. Please consider yourselves invited – make that actively requested – to make corrections and suggestions in the Comments, and to provide links that we can add to the few I’ve included.

HV 1:25 - RB D’Andre Swift, Georgia. (Junior). 5’9”, 215 lbs. Ain’t Gonna Happen. The consensus #1 RB in the draft has ankle-breaker quickness combined with very good speed and a finisher’s mentality in a short-but-not-small body.

HV 1:25 - RB Travis Etienne, Clemson. (Junior). 5’10”, 210 lbs. May be the #1 semi-realistic prospect on the 2020 Board. A slashing home run hitter with top notch speed, very good contact balance and quickness, adequate size, and a willingness to block. Some minor questions exist about his vision and how much credit for his production should go to a great QB and an excellent OL, but those are nit-picking at its finest.

HV 1:25 - RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin. (Junior). 5’11”, 219 lbs. Ain’t Gonna Happen, but wouldn’t it be nice if it did? Taylor fits the “Steeler Model” of really good size and power combined with some subtle niftiness in the feet, blocking ability, receiving ability, and toughness. But in this case you need to add in serious speed that makes almost everyone view him as the #2 prospect in the class. Played behind a great OL (which he used well and patiently), but that isn’t his fault any more than the excessive workload (which has shown no signs of wearing him down).

HV 2:01 - RB J.K. Dobbins, Ohio St. (Junior). 5’10”, 217 lbs. This is probably the most likely RB target for Pittsburgh in Round 2, and no one should complain if they land him. Dobbins compares well to a moderately smaller James Conner with breakaway speed and no history of health problems. He played behind a great college OL, but the same is true for the other top backs in this draft.

HV 2:12 - RB Cam Akers, Florida St. (Junior). 5’11”, 212 lbs. Perhaps the most likely target of the class, Akers “has no physical limitations to execute in any role” according to this Draft Network scouting profile (Marino) but played behind a terrible OL in college and may need time to develop his above-the-neck skillset. His ability to block is a work in progress, and his receiving skills need to be developed, but this is a player who should be a major target in Round 2.

HV 2:24 - RB Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma St. (RS Sophomore). 6’1”, 207 lbs. Another blue chip RB who would have been a 1st rounder 30 years ago, Hubbard is a little leaner than the Steelers seem to prefer but being CFB’s leading rusher in 2019 has proven ability to take the pounding. Tremendous vision, speed, and COD skills are his main calling cards but he’s more than just a scat-rat. He’s a home town hero for most of Canada too. This goes to a December interview with DraftWire.

HV 3:12 - RB Eno Benjamin, Arizona St. (Junior). 5’10”, 210 lbs. A player the Steelers will seriously consider for a pick in the 3:Comp to Early-4 range. He features great vision, short area COD, decisiveness, and the twin ability to get skinny and fall forward as he gets tackled. Good hands but lacks the speed to be a poor man’s WR. He is also willing and able as a blocker but may lack the size to excel as a 3rd down back against NFL rushers. Attitude suggests a core Special Teams maven as the worst case scenario. But is a higher rated, somewhat smaller, Benny Snell the star that Pittsburgh has room for?

HV 3:12 - RB Najee Harris, Alabama. (Junior). 6’2”, 230 lbs. A 5-star athlete recruited to Alabama, who fits the Steeler model perfectly… and yet. When was the last time a Bama RB failed to look like the Next Great Thing? Harris only managed to look like the Next Good Thing when his chance arrived in 2019… with occasional games where he flashed that next level. Hard to figure out. Reviews like this good December scouting profile from our sister site for the Raiders bring to mind descriptions of James Conner as a prospect, but with a higher ceiling, less achievement, and none of the health-related red flags.

HV 3:24 - RB Anthony McFarland, Maryland. (RS Sophomore). 5’9”, 198 lbs. If the Steelers decide to change philosophy and use a change of pace back, this is your man. Kerrith Whyte opened our eyes, but McFarland is an outright devil in open space. The issues show up when he’s confined, and particularly when he’s asked to go mano-a-mano in pass blocking. A major target if Pittsburgh plans to move toward more RBC principles. Not so much if they continue to follow the leave-your-best-on-the-field approach.

HV 3:24 - RB Zack Moss, Utah. (Senior). 5’10”, 222 lbs. He would be ranked higher for a team that did not have two effective power backs already in Conner and Snell, and had not been a busy three-year starter. Moss comes out of college rated higher than either of those but he is unquestionably in the same mold: a between the tackles power back with more niftiness and speed than opponents imagine.

HV 4:01 - RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU. (Junior). 5’8”, 209 lbs. Short but not small, with a special ability to make would be tacklers miss in the hole. Pretty good long speed too, and surprising power for his size. He’s a medium-sized bowling ball. The issue is that he will never be bigger than that.

For those less familiar with the offseason discussions than the rest of us, the annual BTSC Big Boards are organized by Highest Value (“HV#”) to the Steelers. Great players for other teams get downgraded here, as do positions where Pittsburgh has limited “want.” An HV of 1:25 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 25 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 late in Round 2 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, not the one where a player is expected to go; but grades are never pushed up just because of need. Players with the same HV# are organized alphabetically.

Rounds are subdivided as follows:

  • 1st Round grades: 1:01, 1:05, 1:10, 1:15, 1:20, or 1:25.
  • 2nd & 3rd Round grades: Early (#:01), Mid (#:12), or Late (#:24).
  • 4th to 7th Round grades: Early (#:01) or Late (#:16).