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2021 Steelers Roster Outlook: The Running Backs

Who will be the Steelers main running back in 2021?

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

James Conner is a free agent this offseason, and if the Steelers let him go they will need a new leading rusher. If history tells us anything the Steelers will move on from Conner and have a new leading rusher in 2021. In 2004 Jerome Bettis led the Steelers in rushing for the last of the 8 times he would accomplish that feat, second most in team history behind Franco Harris’s 12 seasons as the leading rusher. Both of those rushers are Hall of Fame runners, but even in their careers you can see the drop off that comes with age in a running back.

Franco Harris last averaged 80+ yards a game in his sixth season with the Steelers, at 27 years old. He still led the Steelers in rushing 6 more years, but would only average 70+ yards a game once in that time. Jerome Bettis was paired with quarterback Kordell Stewart, forming one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. Jerome Bettis also had a six year stretch where he averaged over 80 yards a game, the last one coming when he was 29 years old.

Since Franco Harris, Bettis and five other backs have led the Steelers in rushing at least 3 seasons. Merril Hoge led the team in rushing 3 times, Willie Parker led the team for 4 seasons, Rashard Mendenhall led the team three times, LeVeon Bell 4 times and James Conner 3 times. Outside of Jerome Bettis every other player in that list was either drafted by the Steelers or, in the case of Willie Parker, signed as an undrafted free agent.

The most likely course this offseason will be the Steelers leaning on a running back that they drafted to lead the team in rushing. That doesn’t mean we should ignore free agency all together, but it is unlikely a free agent back leads the Steelers in rushing this season.

Current Steelers

Benny Snell Jr.: A 4th round pick in 2019, Snell was a solid #2 runner in 2019 and ran for over 100 yards in week 1 of the 2020 season. He also ran for 84 yards on 18 carries late in the season against Cincinnati. In Snell’s 3 games with at least 10 carries he ran 53 times for 257 yards (4.85 ypc) the rest of the season he ran 58 times for 111 yards (1.91 ypc). Snell isn’t a lead back, or a change of pace back, so far he has been a good spot starter and that’s about it.

Anthony McFarland Jr.: McFarland’s rookie season showed some promise. He showed his speed and burst, but also struggled to read the play and find the lanes that were available. McFarland was a standout for Matt Canada at the University of Maryland when healthy, so he might do better in Canada’s offense.

Jaylen Samuels: Samuels had a great game against the Patriots as a rookie, carved out a role as a receiving back in 2019 that saw him lead all running backs in snaps, and in 2020 fell out of the rotation and was almost entirely a special teams player. With one year left on his rookie deal Jaylen Samuels will re-unite with Matt Canada, and should have the opportunity to win snaps at the H-Back and wingback role he thrived in at NC State. Whether he can turn this opportunity into production will be the major factor in what his next contract looks like.

Trey Edmunds: Safety Terrell Edmunds’ brother has been with the Steelers for three years, but he only has played significant snaps in 2019 when the Steelers had a good number of RB injuries. A good special teams player and a slow but powerful runner on offense, Edmunds saw only a few snaps in 2020, when he filled in for an injured Derek Watt in some formations.

Free Agent Options

James White: White would not be a #1 runner, but he is one of the most versatile backs in the NFL, capable of blocking and running, and is a receiving threat out of the backfield that can also line up as a wide receiver and bring value. That versatility fits Matt Canada’s system that uses running backs in multiple alignments, and James White would be a very good H-back and wingback.

James Conner: There are rumors about teams looking to sign James Conner, but if those fall through or are low enough that the Steelers can match it, Conner is a valuable player, he’s just not the primary back the Steelers want. He’d be ideal in the role Kareem Hunt holds in Cleveland, Conner could be a backup runner and third down back for the Steelers and would be great in that role. This is unlikely as I believe Conner will get a better deal on the open market than a rotational role would be worth. But I’d still love to see Conner paired with a big time rookie running back, it would be a massive upgrade to the offense.

LeSean McCoy: Another option the Steelers could pursue would be a veteran to give the room some maturity and depth. I’m usually not a big fan of that kind of move at running back. McCoy I would be okay with, he’d essentially give the Steelers an upgrade on Benny Snell. In 2019 with the Chiefs McCoy got about as many carries as Snell has the last two years, with substantially better results. McCoy isn’t a great runner anymore, but the Steelers could use a backup with vision to take advantage of holes, something the Steelers backs have struggled with the past few seasons.

Draft Options

The Steelers are a popular team to mock a RB to early, and they have added weight to the speculation by paying a lot of attention to potential first round running backs.

Travis Etienne: The Steelers showed up in force at Clemson’s Pro-Day, with Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Matt Canada in attendance. When Tomlin and Colbert both show up, it usually means a first round pick is on the line. With Matt Canada there as well, it seems to lean towards either Etienne or WR Amari Rogers. Etienne has stated that he has had Zoom meetings with the Steelers, and that he thinks he is a perfect fit for Canada’s offense.

I agree. Etienne brings vision, speed and receiver qualities. He would be a player the Steelers could put at wingback and threaten with inside runs, sweeps and running routes, as well as being a lead back.

Najee Harris: A favorite of mock drafts for the Steelers, the Alabama running back is viewed as a top pick, not for his upside, but for having an incredibly high floor. Harris shows good vision, power and patience as a runner, and his film evokes memories of LeVeon Bell, who thrived in Todd Haley’s offense with Ben Roethlisberger. In a Todd Haley offense he would likely be just a running back, though, as he doesn’t have the speed or route running you want in a wingback. That doesn’t rule him out, the Steelers still have Jaylen Samuels who despite his limitations lining up in the backfield, is a good wingback.

Javonte Williams: Williams would also be a feature runner in the backfield primarily in the NFL. Williams is more explosive and powerful where Najee Harris brings more grind and vision.

Demetric Felton: Lined up as a wide receiver and as a running back in college, impressed at Senior Bowl practices as a slot receiver. Also a very good kick returner in college, Felton would bring a lot of potential value in the middle rounds, but would not be a feature back.

The Steelers need to find a feature back, and depending on how they view Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels, could also be looking for a versatile player for a wingback role.