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Steelers NFL Draft Fits: The great Running Back debate of 2021

Looking at the top three running backs in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Allstate Sugar Bowl Semifinal Game - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is the fourth installment in a series where Geoff and Kevin examine the 2021 NFL draft fits for the Steelers on offense. Previously, they’ve covered tight ends, quarterbacks and centers. Here, they look at what may be most intriguing position group of the draft for Pittsburgh: running backs.

Most fans are aware the Steelers lack a true number one back. They cannot head to September with a running back room comprised of Benny Snell Jr, Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage and Anthony McFarland. Surely they will select one in next week’s draft.

The candidates seem to be divided into two tiers. The top tier consists of Najee Harris, Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams. That is the focus here. The second tier, while headlined by players like Trey Sermon and Kenneth Gainwell, essentially contains everyone else. That group will be the focus of a subsequent article.

Kevin: To get Harris, Etienne or Williams, the Steelers will likely need to spend their top pick at 1:24, something they have not done since 2008 when they took Rashard Mendenhall. So, Geoffrey, to begin — will the Steelers use their top pick on a running back, and if so, who do you prefer?

Geoffrey: I think it will be a running back or center, there’s just too much need at both positions to use the first round pick elsewhere. I would prefer a center, but if Najee Harris is there, I bet that is the pick. You brought up Mendenhall, what people forget is the offensive line fell apart after that draft pick, and Mendenhall was running behind one of the worst lines the Steelers have had. We have to hope a first round back in 2021 won’t face a similar situation.

Kevin: The Steelers didn’t really scout Mendenhall either. He fell and they took him because he fell. They didn’t think they’d have a shot at him. It’s hard to know how that affected their remaining draft philosophy that year.

As far as this year’s backs, I’ve been banging the drum for Etienne this off-season for two reasons. First, his home-run hitting ability would be a huge boon to the offense. The Steelers need a player who can score from anywhere on the field. Etienne is that guy. Second, I think Etienne is the back who would benefit Matt Canada the most. Canada could use him in myriad ways — as a runner, a receiver, a gadget guy. He could line Etienne up all over the formation, shift and motion the daylights out of teams, run his outside zone concepts and pair them with play-action, screens, counters and reverses. Anything to get Etienne the ball in space.

That said, I’m not opposed to the Steelers taking Williams, adding some butt-kickers up front and trying to run the ball down people’s throats. He was the hardest back to tackle in college football last season according to PFF. He’s a powerful runner with great balance who can excel in both gap and zone schemes. He reminds me a lot of Nick Chubb. Having a guy like Chubb in Pittsburgh would be a beautiful thing.

Harris is the hardest to evaluate for me. The Steelers seem high on him, if recent reports are to be believed. His combination of patience and power reminds me of Le’Veon Bell. But how much did Harris benefit from the rest of that offense at Alabama? He never saw a stacked box because of their perimeter talent and his offensive line was one of the best in the country. Harris was a stellar college running back and could be a great pro. He’s just harder to judge for me, given the circumstances under which he played.

Geoff: Etienne reminds me a good bit of Reggie Bush, in both good and bad ways. I don’t see Etienne as a runner who creates opportunity, but he gets a lot out of the opportunities he is given. Etienne is a guy that can take a well designed and executed play to the house, but he needs that support to succeed. If you just plug Etienne in where James Conner was in 2020, the results aren’t going to be great, and you wasted that pick. I can fully get behind Etienne in Matt Canada’s offense, because Canada could line him up at wing, run routes with him, make him an X factor that teams will struggle to account for. I just don’t see him succeeding as a full-time traditional tailback unless you give him a line like Willie Parker had.

I agree with you on Javonte Williams. I think there is very little question what you are getting out of him. I don’t have him in the same tier as Chubb, but I like him a lot.

Najee Harris doesn’t have that 2nd gear to run away from NFL linebackers like he did with so many college linebackers. He isn’t going to be the home run threat he was at Alabama if he’s in Pittsburgh. What Najee Harris brings is vision and tough, vertical running. Harris is one of the best at knowing when to turn upfield and take the yards you can get. There’s a lot of times James Conner missed those yards trying to go outside. Harris isn’t Le’Veon Bell, but he’s going to get similar results. Consistent but not explosive yards on the ground paired with good receiving ability.

I think it is also important with running backs to look at age and number of carries.

Najee Harris is 23, and had 718 touches in college.
Javonte Williams will be 21 for the draft and had 416 touches in college.
Travis Etienne is 22, and had 788 touches in college.

A boost to Javonte Williams here, with an NFL season’s worth of less wear on his body.

Ranking those three backs, my order would be:

  1. Javonte Williams
  2. Najee Harris
  3. Travis Etienne

How would you rank them Kevin?

Kevin: If this is really going to be Canada’s offense, and not some compromise where Ben Roethlisberger is still in charge but lets Canada add a few wrinkles, I’d prefer Etienne. While he’s not the three-down back Harris and Williams are, he’s the back who lets Canada get the most creative. I want a back who can stretch a defense horizontally and vertically and put them in a bind. We can find a good zone and gap runner easier than a home run threat.

If Harris and Williams were truly special backs, I’d be more excited about them. While I think they’re both very good, I don’t know if either is special. Etienne won’t provide the utilitarian value they do. But he’s the one who just might be special. He’s a bit of a gamble but I don’t think the Steelers are getting back on top by playing it safe. I’ll take Etienne and challenge Canada to maximize his abilities.

Geoff: Our biggest disagreement yet, will be interesting to see if the Steelers get the chance to pick one of these running backs over the others.

Your turn readers, if all three were available at pick #24, who would you want the Steelers to take?

Poll

What of these three running backs do you like best?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Najee Harris
    (425 votes)
  • 26%
    Travis Etienne
    (260 votes)
  • 30%
    Javonte Williams
    (307 votes)
992 votes total Vote Now

Also look for part 2, coming soon, covering some of the mid-round backs the Steelers could draft if they don’t get one of these three.