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Steelers 2017 Draft Outlook: Running back already a strength but could get even better

Despite some expiring contracts, the running back situation in Pittsburgh likely won’t look much different in 2017 — and if it does, it might get even better. And that’s without even considering the draft.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, the Pittsburgh Steelers might appear to be in dire straits when it comes to running back.

After all, All-Universe stud runner Le’Veon Bell’s contract expires in just over a month. His primary backup, De’Angelo Williams, is also set to become a free agent in just a few weeks, and turns 34 this year. Behind Williams is Fitzgerald Toussaint...who is also about to become a free agent. After those three, who carried pretty much all the weight at running back in 2016, all that’s left is Karlos Williams, who the team signed during the season but never saw a game due to a suspension; and three guys who are pretty much guaranteed to be camp bodies in Gus Johnson, Dreamius Smith and Brandon Brown-Dukes.

It would be perfectly acceptable, at this point, if you were to go full-on Chicken Little, thinking the sky is falling, and running to tell the king. Or, in this case, General Manager Kevin Colbert.

Fear not, friends. That really was just an apple that bonked you on the head. The sky is not falling. For several reasons.

First, it’s been reported multiple times since early December 2016 that the team plans to use the Franchise tag on Bell, to buy time in hopes of signing him to a long-term deal. That means the guy who ran for no fewer than 93 yards in a single game over the final eight games of the regular season, and then obliterated two defenses in the playoffs, is going to be back in Pittsburgh in 2017, one way or another.

Additionally, head coach Mike Tomlin has said he hopes De’Angelo Williams will return for another season in 2017, and Williams has also voiced his desire to play another year. All that’s left is hammering out the details. And Karlos Williams is under contract for two more years, too. Should he live up to the hype and avoid the substance-abuse issues that caused his suspension in the first place, he could end up as the number-two back in 2017 or 2018.

That leaves Toussaint, Johnson, Smith and Brown-Dukes. Toussaint has been on the active roster for part or all of the last two seasons, and has done at least as well as you would expect from a third-string back. But he, and everyone below him, are absolutely expendable if the right guy fell to the Steelers at the right time in the 2017 NFL Draft.

And a mighty fine field of runners, it is.

This year, there are five to seven backs who could legitimately be taken in the first round. That’s due to three things: 1) they really are that good; 2) this draft is weak in some positions that typically dominate the first round; and 3) the success of backs like Bell, David Johnson, Davonte Freeman and Ezekiel Elliott is causing the value of running backs to go up dramatically, again.

However, this draft is also very heavy at a few positions, and that could cause some of the top backs to fall into the second, and even third, rounds. EDGE rushers, safeties and tight ends are likely to dominate the first two rounds, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities for Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel or Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon to fall into the third round, and possibly even far enough for the Steelers to have a shot. If not, it’s likely someone like Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols or Wyoming’s Brian Hill would be there, and both would be good options for the Steelers.

At this point, the third and fourth rounds feel like the sweet spot for the team to take a runner. With the draft being deep at three positions of need, I would expect the first two rounds to net the Steelers any two of EDGE, safety and tight end. For most other positions, they will be picking solely for depth, so it wouldn’t be the least bit shocking if the third and fourth rounds resulted in a runner and a backup quarterback.

Given the current outlook at running back, the Steelers have some wiggle room in the 2017 Draft. It’s not a critical position, but it would certainly behoove them to get another talented youngster into the fold, either as insurance in case Bell doesn’t sign a new contract, or to replace De’Angelo Williams in 2018. The situation may be ugly on paper, but in reality, running back is already just a couple of signatures away from being even stronger in 2017 than it was in 2016. Adding a talented runner through the draft would just be gravy on the mashed potatoes.