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The case for Steelers drafting a top running back in 2022 NFL Draft

After using their top pick at running back last year, would grabbing the same position early a second-straight year be a wise decision?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

It is highly unlikely that the Steelers use a high value draft pick – in the first three rounds — on a running back after successfully taking Najee Harris in the first round last year. But the question is, should they?

The retirement of Ben Roethlisberger puts the team into a position it hasn’t been in for decades. Those with long memories, the old among us, remember the long drought that was endured after the retirement of Terry Bradshaw. The slew of mediocre to awful quarterbacks taking the helm between the Blonde Bomber and Big Ben stagnated the development of Steelers teams that had all the other ingredients to contend for the title, except for the quarterback.

When the Steelers did contend in those lean years, it was because of a strong defense and a strong running back. Now, it is possible that Mitch Trubisky finds himself worthy of his high draft capital and ascends as the Bears once hoped, or that the Steelers pick one of those top quarterback choices in this year’s draft and they perform over the mediocre value that the draftniks and scouts seem to attach to this year’s crop.

All possible, but all unlikely.

Therefore, the Steelers could seemingly arrive back in a mid-1990’s time machine, but this time with T.J. Watt instead of Greg Lloyd, and Najee Harris starring in the Jerome Bettis role.

Those 1990s to early 2000s teams leaned heavily on the running game. Expect the Steelers to try to do the same thing with Najee Harris. And, that’s great, because you have got to love what Harris brings to the table, everything from great attitude and strong running to fantastic pass catching skills.

But, behind Harris it is barren. The drop off from Harris to his backups is drastic. And with no prime Ben Roethlisberger to wing the ball down the field, losing Harris and relying on Trubisky to carry the team is scary. He screams game manager. As mentioned above, it is possible everything clicks for him. Even still, the Steelers want to run the ball more.

That has been their stated goal for years now.

If you followed the Steelers teams of Bettis lore back in the day, you will know they ran him a lot. So much so, that you often recall him getting banged up and worn down by the end of the year. One promising playoff run ended because of Jerome’s groin. Of course his groin hurt – it was carrying the whole offense for 16 weeks.

Even in more recent times, the same “worn-out” fates occurred with James Conner and Le’veon Bell in the playoffs, or before.

Which brings us to Mike Tomlin. One of the first things I remember about Tomlin is him telling the media that he would run Willie Parker until his wheels fell off.

Guess what? Willie Parker’s wheels granted him his wish— they promptly fell off.

It is known that Tomlin likes to lean on one back, whether that be Willie Parker, Le’veon Bell, James Conner, or Najee Harris. If you play fantasy football, everyone knows the massive workload the Steelers give their backs is without question and is desired in the fantasy community. When drafted, Tomlin said he’d lean heavily on Harris.

Again, the man doesn’t lie— his workload was epic. Fantasy managers like this, but reality football teams should not.

The critique of drafting a top running back this year is obvious. Taking a running back when you have Najee Harris would waste draft capital on a team with many needs. Plus, running backs of Najee’s pedigree often don’t like sharing the load, and sometimes that can cause locker room issues if they draft a talent like a Breece Hall.

Perhaps, though, he might appreciate it. Ricky Williams quit football because Dave Wannstedt ran him into the ground, and Deebo Samuel is also balking at his heavy workload, as well. That said, I doubt the Steelers spend a high pick on a Hall, Kenneth Walker, or one of the other high prospects.

But it would not be unwise.

Because here is a crystal ball prediction: Mitch Trubisky will turn the Steelers into the teams of the nineties as I described above. He will be mediocre and the Steelers will attempt to run heavily with Najee Harris and rely on a strong defense. Tomlin will run Najee’s wheels off again (luckily, he made it through last season) because that’s his M.O., and the Steelers will turn to Benny Snail…er, I mean Snell.

Or, someone equivalent.

From what the draft experts project, the top running backs should fall to the second and third rounds. The season is now an arduous 17 weeks, so it is even more grueling on the running back position than in Bettis’ days. It’s an injury-prone position regardless of workload. Just ask the 2021 Baltimore Ravens. Having a dynamic duo to share the load wouldn’t be a bad idea. Even with a talented quarterback at the helm, the rigors of an NFL season giving Harris 90 percent of the carries— not to mention receptions— is foolhardy.

Drafting a top tiered running back this year would be shocking, but I’ve seen this story play out before and maybe they should consider it.