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Why a first round running back isn’t the worst decision for the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers could take a RB in the first round, and that decision wouldn’t be the end of the world for the black and gold

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers need help in the running game. After finishing last season dead last in the league in both rushing yards per game, and rushing yards per attempt, it has made something very clear.

Something has to change.

Team President Art Rooney II already made the following comment during a Steelers Nation Unite conference call with fans.

“We’ve got to be a lot better in running,” Rooney said. “Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.”

As I said, something has to change, and for the average fan the first position they point to is running back. Get a better running back, and you have an improved running game, right?

Well, that depends on who you are talking to. Some will say you could have the best running back in the league, but if they are running behind a shoddy offensive line they won’t make an impact.

Nonetheless, there are three running backs who are considered the top backs in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft. They would be, in no particular order:

Najee Harris (Alabama)
Travis Etienne (Clemson)
Javonte Williams (North Carolina)

At this point, you have likely heard all about the negative talking points of taking a running back in the first round of the draft. How these players aren’t worth the money. How you can find quality backs in the mid rounds of the draft. And also how running backs rarely deserve a second contract in today’s game.

But all those narratives shouldn’t stop the Steelers from taking a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft if the player proves to be the best player available at pick No. 24 in the first round.

Why, you ask?

For several reasons:

First, is the fact when you select a player in the first round of the NFL Draft, you have the 5th year option to use at your disposal. With one of the biggest complaints and narratives for drafting running backs early being how they never deserve a second contract, this would guarantee you can keep them within the organization for a fifth year, at a relatively cheap price.

After the 5th year option, teams will always have the Franchise Tag as an option after that. So, if you have a running back who has been serviceable, and has played extremely well, once you use the option year on their rookie contract, you could be locking in a sixth year of service.

Once those options have been exhausted, the team will be forced to face a second straight franchise tag, not the best option available, to try and lock the player into a long term contract. If that doesn’t work, like it didn’t with Le’Veon Bell, the team can part ways with the players after six years of service.

The fact remains, the running back position doesn’t carry the same amount of longevity it once did. Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore seem to be the last of a dying breed of running backs who can play for well over a decade and still be successful. The days of Jerome Bettis and Emmitt Smith playing for well over ten seasons is more of an aberration than the norm. With that said, using the tools available to franchises under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) can set you up with a quality running back for six seasons before eventually parting ways.

I often go back to Bell’s time with the Steelers and ask myself if he were a first round pick, how would the team have handled the waning years of his Steelers’ career? The 5th year option would almost certainly have been used, and the franchise tag would have been applied the year after. This path would have likely meant Bell would have played in 2018, rather than sitting out like he did. I’m not suggesting Bell’s career would be a carbon copy of a running back they could draft in the 2021 NFL Draft, but it certainly could be similar.

If your fear of taking a running back in the first round is due solely on the contractual situation the team might find themselves in after their first contract expires, I don’t think that is a logical reason to avoid a player who can help improve the offense.

If your fear of taking a running back in the first round stems from the poor line in front of said back, that is a different concern altogether. Throughout this offseason the Steelers have built a team who can draft the best player available (BPA) when it is their turn to pick 24th in the first round.

Will it be a running back? Will it be an offensive tackle? Will it be a linebacker?

No one knows, but if it is a running back fans shouldn’t be concerned about the future of the player.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the rest of Free Agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.