The Steelers currently have seven players listed at running back on their roster. And only two of them are locks to make the final 53.
That’s right, James Conner will be making a reappearance as the Steelers’ (hopefully healthy) feature back, while Benny Snell Jr. will return as Conner’s backup after a somewhat promising rookie year.
Behind those two there is a slew of names on the depth chart: Jaylen Samuels, Anthony McFarland Jr., Trey Edmunds, Ralph Webb, and Kerrith Whyte. Anywhere from three to five spots could be open on the Steelers’ 2020 roster for the seven running backs to fill, and behind Conner and Snell the competition is close. Fullback Derek Watt will be taking up a spot as well, which probably means the Steelers will only be able to fit three or four running backs on their roster.
Edmunds and Webb look to be the obvious cuts, as Webb hasn’t shown much of anything in his NFL career and Edmunds simply doesn’t offer as much as the other backs on the roster. This leaves Samuels, McFarland, and Whyte.
So who makes the final cut?
The safe bet is that the Steelers keep four running backs (not including Derek Watt at fullback), and the most obvious prediction is a depth chart of James Conner, Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels, and Anthony McFarland. An article here at BTSC predicting the Steelers’ final 53-man roster this year had the same outcome at running back, acknowledging that even though the team tends to only keep three running backs, Conner’s injury history, paired with the team keeping five last year, points to Pittsburgh keeping four at the position in 2020.
It’s a solid running back room, with Conner as the primary starter, Snell as a competent backup and bruiser, Samuels as a gadget piece and special teamer, and McFarland as the speedster.
But that’s where Kerrith Whyte comes in.
The Florida Atlantic product was a breath of fresh air when he was brought into Pittsburgh midway through last season. The Pittsburgh offense had turned into a boring and predictable one, passing the ball for four yards one play and running for three the next while utterly lacking in the category of ‘explosive plays’. When Whyte got his first carry against Cincinnati in Week 12 of 2019, he burst through a small seam behind a pulling David DeCastro and sprinted for 21 yards.
Whyte continued to get a few carries each game after that, and in his limited time he still managed to provide a spark, even though he faded near the end of the season. He finished the year with 24 carries for 122 yards (5.1 YPC) — not mind-blowing numbers by any means, but solid considering his small sample size of playing time and the best yards per carry (YPC) among Steelers’ running backs for the year.
Whyte also found a niche as the Steelers’ starting kickoff returner, replacing Ryan Switzer. Despite the team’s below average blocking on returns, Whyte’s speed and agility helped him make the best out of what he had, leading the team in kickoff return yards, attempts, and average, including a team-best long of 34 yards.
Pittsburgh brought in Anthony McFarland Jr. in the following draft, another speed back who might make Whyte expendable in 2020. However, the Steelers obviously kept Whyte around for a reason, and he’s shown enough in his time with the team to merit a shot at making the final roster this year. He has more NFL experience than McFarland and has impressed in the kickoff return department, something that McFarland didn’t do much of in college.
As a result, the Steelers have a dilemma at the bottom of their running back depth chart. Whyte’s play could force the team to have second thoughts about getting rid of him, but who would he replace?
If the Steelers cut (or trade) Jaylen Samuels, they will be losing a player with a unique skill set who could be a valuable piece in the Steelers’ offense this year. It would also leave two very similar players to round out the running back depth, which would cut down the diversity of skill sets on the roster.
McFarland is a fairly high draft pick who isn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster but definitely has the inside track to make it — and will unless he seriously disappoints before the season. The worst case scenario is he could be put on the practice squad, but he’d probably be poached.
Whyte himself could be an option for the practice squad, but it would negate his kick return ability that made him a roster option in the first place. There’s also a chance he would get picked up by another team like the Steelers signed him from the Bears’ practice squad last year.
The Steelers could keep all five running backs instead, but that would mean cutting down on another position. Possibly, the team could keep only five wide receivers, especially since Whyte’s kickoff return ability and Samuels’ pass-catching ability could make up the extra spot. But the Steelers like to keep six wide receivers and wouldn’t want to deviate from that in today’s pass-happy NFL.
Placing someone on the practice squad is the simplest solution, but it would take away that player’s ability to contribute and put them in a spot where another team could sign them. There’s no easy answers, and with it looking like the preseason will be shortened or completely eliminated this year, it will be much harder to evaluate roster battles and make the right personnel decisions. And, if someone like Trey Edmunds or Ralph Webb makes a splash in training camp, final cuts will become even more complicated.
The Steelers have a lot of intriguing young running backs on the back end of their roster, and with limited spots available, they won’t be able to fit everyone on the final 53.
At least it’s a good problem to have.