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Steelers NFL Draft Fits: If the top 3 RBs are gone, who would make sense for the Steelers?

Looking at some running backs that are projected to be drafted in the middle rounds.

Texas v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Kevin Smith and I covered the top three running backs in the 2021 draft yesterday, today we are going to talk about some of the other backs that the Steelers could select if they don’t get one of the three we already covered.

Geoff: Michael Carter from North Carolina is a interesting prospect. Some places have him rated higher than his teammate, Javonte Williams, who we covered in our previous article, while others have him as a 6th or 7th round pick. Carter is a small back, he’s 5’8” and 200 lbs, and he didn’t post a crazy 40 yard dash time, but on film? Michael Carter might have the best vision in the running back class and while he doesn’t have a crazy top gear speed, his acceleration when he cuts is top notch, and he’ll break bigger runs because of it.

He also is a really good pass blocker. Going purely off film, and ignoring size, Michael Carter is my favorite back in this draft class. What do you think of Michael Carter, Kevin? Are there any concerns in your mind about his size and workload?

Kevin: Wow, that’s a bold claim about Carter. But I have to say, while I’m not sure I totally agree, I do think he’s an under-rated prospect. Like you said, his vision is great and he is really decisive with his cuts. He takes those short, choppy steps that allow him to cut quickly. He’ll be a great fit for a team that runs a lot of inside zone and he’s going to be tough to tackle as a receiver on the perimeter.

I just don’t know if he’s what Pittsburgh needs. While Carter is decisive, at his size, you’d like him to be quicker. He’s got one of the slowest 10-yard splits of the top prospects in the draft. He’s going to make some first-level defenders miss, but the pursuit in the NFL is so fast I wonder if he’s quick enough to escape. I’m not sure a Carter-Benny Snell-Anthony McFarland running back rotation is any better than what the Steelers had last year with James Conner. I like Carter and I think he could be a nice compliment to a team that already has a feature back. I’m not sure Pittsburgh is that team.

Geoff: I don’t like 10-yard splits, often times a player’s start out of sprinter’s stance affects their time more than their acceleration. His 10-yard split was bad, but his 10-20 split was an insane 0.95 seconds (AB showed his quickness with a 1.05 10-20 split). That tells me either the timing on the ten yard number was off, or he didn’t get a good start. He also had elite agility scores, which gives you a good measure of burst out of direction changes. I think those apply much more to runners in the NFL than the 10-yard split. I think he has that 2nd gear speed to make it in the NFL, but I do agree that it would be hard to take Carter without another back to platoon him with.

Kevin: Good points. I’d really like Carter in Pittsburgh as a compliment to a better back, the way he and Williams worked at UNC. That was a great 1-2 punch. Who knows? Maybe he and Benny could surprise us together.

Geoff: Chuba Hubbard lit up the stat sheet in 2019, breaking long runs frequently on his way to 2094 yards. He battled an ankle injury in 2020 and his yards per carry fell from 6.4 to 4.7. Hubbard is a sprinter and only weighs 208 lbs., so questions about his durability are on the table. Hubbard was a tailback only in college, so he doesn’t offer the versatility that a Travis Etienne offers, and that hurts his stock for me, because the Steelers have Anthony McFarland in house, and I don’t think using a mid-round pick for a slight upgrade with less versatility makes sense to me.

Kevin: I feel the same way about Hubbard. What does Hubbard offer that separates him from the backs on the Steelers’ roster? The Steelers don’t need redundancy in their running back room. They need a difference-maker. I don’t see that with Hubbard. He was a great college runner but he’s a rotational player in the NFL. Is a Hubbard/Snell/McFarland rotation better than Conner/Snell/McFarland? No, it’s not. The Steelers need an upgrade at running back, not a lateral move.

Kevin: Another name that’s gotten some attention as a mid-round pick for the Steelers is Kenneth Gainwell from Memphis. Gainwell is another smaller back (5’8-200) with quick feet and home-run hitting ability. He’s a capable receiver too, having caught 51 passes for 610 yards in the 2019 season. Some have called Gainwell a poor man’s Etienne for his dual-threat capability.

Two things make me question whether Gainwell is right for the Steelers, though. First, he opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid concerns. I am hesitant when it comes to opt-out players, simply for the lack of tape and how a year off affects their ability to leap to the NFL. Second, while Gainwell is the better receiver, he feels an awful lot like McFarland. He is not in Etienne’s league, in my opinion, which means he will battle McFarland for reps. The Steelers need someone to compete to be the number one back, not the backup.

Geoffrey, what do you think about Gainwell?

Geoffrey: I’m not concerned about the opt-out at all from a “love of football” side, his family situation was serious. I get the uncertainty about his development and work in that time period that you are talking about there though. Gainwell could fall pretty far because of his lost season, and if he falls far enough, I think he could make an intriguing pick up as a wingback. He’s a fantastic receiving back, and I love his running after the catch, he does a great job getting low and shows balance that makes him tough to bring down. His change of direction is his biggest weakness on film, so I don’t see him as a tailback, and at that point, in the Steelers current situation, you’d almost need him to be a second running back pick, and I can’t see that happening. He’d be competing with Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland and that’s not a priority at all.

Kevin: Now that I’ve spent most of this article talking about the second-tier guys I don’t like for the Steelers, let me say a few words about someone I do. If the Steelers pass on the Big Three at the top of this draft, the one guy I see who could come in and be a difference-maker right away is Ohio State’s Trey Sermon. Sermon is big (6’3-216) and has the frame to carry another seven to ten pounds. He’s an excellent outside zone runner, which should be a feature play in Matt Canada’s scheme, and he’s a capable receiver and pass blocker as well. Sermon does not have great long speed (4.59 in the forty) but his 10-yard split (1.49) is better than any top prospect in this draft, including smaller backs like Etienne, Carter and Gainwell. That tells us he is quick through the hole. And, while he’s not an elusive back, his size will make him tough to tackle for unwilling perimeter defenders.

Sermon is not yet an accomplished short yardage runner — he runs too high at times and will need to play with a lower pad level — but with Benny Snell on the roster the Steelers don’t need him to convert third downs right away. Sermon provides something the team lacks: a back with size capable of handling a heavy workload. If the Steelers land two physical linemen in the first two rounds, Sermon could be a great compliment in round three.

Geoff: Trey Sermon is my power run offense back in this draft. If the Steelers grab a Tevin Jenkins or Landon Dickerson (or both!!) then Trey Sermon makes a lot of sense. He’s best in zone offense, and I like him best in inside zone, like the Steelers ran with Le’Veon Bell and that great line. Kevin Dotson and Zach Banner were both great at inside zone in limited 2020 action, so it could really work. I agree with you that Trey Sermon is really the only feature back in the middle rounds of this draft. And that is what the Steelers need.

Kevin: Jenkins, Dickerson and Sermon. Now that would transform the run game.

Geoff: I have an internal debate in any scenario where the top backs are off the board: At what point do the Steelers say “You know what, we can ride with Benny Snell as our main back if we have a big play threat to pair him with.” In this draft, as Kevin and I are saying in this article, once you get past the few true feature backs in this draft, you have a lot of complimentary pieces.

Obviously Mike Tomlin isn’t going to want a committee approach to running back, but if the Steelers are put in that situation by how the draft falls, there are some really good options to add to that committee. In 2012 the Steelers used a committee of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman and finished 28th in the NFL in yards per carry. They drafted Le’Veon Bell in 2013 and finished 29th. In 2014 they improved the offensive line and Le’Veon Bell took off.

If the Steelers choose to focus on the offensive line and a better run scheme, I think they can get away with not drafting a top running back, and instead getting a guy like Michael Carter or Kenneth Gainwell to add some threat to the running back committee.

Kevin: I’ve been pretty adamant about wanting one of those Big Three backs but I wouldn’t be disappointed if they loaded up on linemen and waited to take one in the third or fourth round. Sermon is my guy if they go that route, but I wouldn’t be disappointed with Carter. The others feel like lateral moves to me, which isn’t something Pittsburgh can afford.