The NFL draft is less than a month away! Of course, it is the season for mock drafts, discussion of team needs, and all kinds of debates dealing with who the Steelers should take to enhance their 2020 squad. With no first-round draft pick for the first time since 1967, Steelers’ fans have to dig deep with their discussion of who the first player will be selected in the 2020 NFL draft.
There are a wide variety of positions fans feel the Steelers should go with their first overall pick, but a lot of people are beginning to come around to the notion of actually taking the best player available. On the flip side, there are still some that are stuck on certain positions the Steelers should take with their top pick. While I have a list of positions I feel the Steelers should enhance at some point in the draft, I trust that they have a firm idea of what they want to do with that topic when the time comes.
Still, I see an awful lot of chatter both and Behind The Steel Curtain and on social media about how the Steelers HAVE to take a running back in round two. While I’ve noted on several podcasts how this idea baffles me, I would go as far to say is that I don’t even feel the Steelers need to take a running back in the 2020 draft at all.
Yes, the running game was pretty terrible for the Steelers in 2019. But, I think the “pretty terrible” notation could be designated for pretty much the entire offense for the season. While every aspect of the offense may not have been as bad as what it seemed, it was not what Steelers’ fans have grown accustomed to and therefore was a major disappointment. Yes, it was also the first time since 1967 where the Steelers did not have a 500-yard rusher. So if the running game was that bad, why am I thinking the Steelers don’t need to look at the position as their number one choice to draft come the last weekend in April?
For me it is simple: I don’t feel the problems the Steelers had with the running game in 2019 had everything to do with the person carrying the ball.
James Conner led the Steelers in rushing with 464 yards on 116 attempts for an average of 4.0 yards per carry. Unfortunately, he only appeared in 10 games in 2019. Rookie Benny Snell Jr. was close behind Conner with 426 yards on 108 carries for an average of 3.94 yards per carry. While the rushing yards look terrible, the yards per attempt were honestly not all that bad. The biggest problem with either player racking up too many yards was due to the fact 2019 was by far the lowest rushing attempts by a player to lead the Steelers in a 16-game season. The only year that came anywhere close was 2012 when Jonathan Dwyer had the most carries for the Steelers with 156 in a season which also saw Isaac Redman with 110 attempts. Otherwise, it is a fairly rare occasion for the Steelers player who lead the team in rushing attempts to be below 200 as it has only happened seven times in 41 seasons in which the NFL played 16 regular-season games.
Of course, one of the biggest reasons fans feel the Steelers need an upgrade at running back is the durability of James Conner. Had he played more than 10 games, he obviously would have had more than 119 carries. It’s pretty hard to argue against this point. But of the 32 running backs who led their team in rushing in 2019, only 12 of them played in all 16 games. So 20 of the 32 teams in the NFL had their leading rusher miss at least one game. Unfortunately, injures have become the norm due to the nature of the position.
But what about Benny Snell who was just behind Conner? Snell missed three games in 2019, and it was very unfortunate that they were also two of the same games Conner missed. As for the third game, Conner came back too early against the Cleveland Browns and only had five carries on 13 offensive snaps.
There were four games in which Snell played when Conner was out, two of which he started. In all four games, Snell had 293 yards on 71 carries for an average of 4.13 yards per carry. The other four starts at running back in 2019 went to Jaylen Samuels. Only seeing double-digit carries in two games the whole season, Samuels is much more of a receiving threat out of the backfield. But the Steelers probably are not too easy to forget his performance in Week 15 of 2018 against the New England Patriots when he ran for 142 yards. Or maybe they are.
The other two running backs from Steelers roster in 2019 were Trey Edmunds, who had the longest rush on this season, and Kerrith Whyte Jr. who had the highest yards per carry average for the Steelers in 2019 at 5.1 Y/A.
When it comes to 2020, the Steelers already have five running backs which finished the season on the roster in 2019. While it is highly unlikely all five of them will make the roster in 2020, having another running back simply means another one of these players will most likely be let go come September.
If the Steelers are going to draft a running back in 2020, it would need to be of the game-changing variety. And will there be a game changer-available at the 49th overall pick? It is highly questionable. But if the Steelers use their top pick on a running back and both James Conner and Benny Snell Jr show their capabilities to start the season, it might be difficult for the rookie to even find many offensive snaps. While it would be a good problem to have, there are other positions which also need upgrades for depth as well.
Personally, I’m not ready to give up on the 2018 Pro Bowl rusher at this point. Yes, he has a history of injuries. But I’m also optimistic about Snell, especially looking at his 91 yards on 19 carries from Week 17. Why? When it comes to offense, it all starts with a quarterback. And with the quarterback play the Steelers had in 2019, it’s really hard to evaluate everything else. Were the receivers weak because of quarterback play? Or the tight ends? Even the offensive line has been thought it will improve with the return of Ben Roethlisberger. But for some reason, many believe that the running backs show no sign of hope. Forget that the threat of a passing game will keep teams from crowding the line of scrimmage and actually open up holes. The perceived lack of production by the running backs is completely on them.
In the age of the NFL when high-priced running backs are not something teams are looking to invest in, constantly refreshing young running backs on their rookie contracts is a good philosophy. Do the Steelers want to do that this year, or would it be better in 2021 if they move on from James Conner? What if Conner has another Pro Bowl season and is deserving of another contract? Throwing another running back in the mix, particularly with a high draft pick, is not going to help answer these questions.
I am a firm believer that the Steelers need to take the best player available on their board when it is their turn to pick with the 17th choice of the second round. If the Steelers believe they can get a game-changing running back as their best option, I can live with it. Even while writing this piece I’ve come around a little more to the idea should the right player be there and other positions are not. But to say that is the direction they have to be looking I don’t feel helps them as much in 2020 as maybe some other places.
Even if the Steelers do decide to draft a running back high in 2020, I’ll still cheer loud and strong for said player on game day. I guess I trust more in the Steelers’ opinion of their running back room than those of us outside the organization. Maybe I have too much faith in the players the Steelers already have on their roster. I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks exactly the team’s mentality.