In 2020, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Anthony McFarland Jr. with the 124th overall pick in the fourth round of the NFL Draft out of Maryland. In 2018, McFarland started just 5 of 12 games, but rushed for over 1,000 yards on 134 carries. In 2019, he carried the ball 114 times in 11 games, but only rushed for 614 yards. Despite the drop off in production, McFarland decided to forego his last two years of eligibility and enter the draft. He demonstrated blazing speed at the NFL Combine running a 4.44 second 40-yard dash and his connection to Matt Canada as his coach during his 2018 season seemed like a perfect match when he joined the team.
McFarland is entering his third season with the Steelers and has struggled to find playing time. He did appear in 11 games in 2020, but only carried the ball 33 times. In 2021, he went backwards only being active in two games. He spent the first two months of the season on the injured reserve, but even when healthy could not find the field to spell Najee Harris. Harris was busy playing nearly every down for a team pushing to make the playoffs.
McFarland’s inability to find the field in his second year is curious. Most running back’s need a volume of carries to establish a pattern of how they will perform when called upon to fulfill a role. He is only 5 feet 8 inches tall, so it is not realistic to expect him to supplant Harris. However, given his connection to Canada, it begs the question, why doesn’t he have a role. Is it because Canada does not have faith in McFarland?
The Steelers have a role for a second running back to take pressure off Harris. The only thing that feels like a certainty at this point is that it is very unlikely Benny Snell Jr. is going to play that role. Mataeo Durant from Duke and Jaylen Warren from Oklahoma State will be given every opportunity to win the job, with Durant looking like he might have the inside track. The Steelers may still reach out to an experienced free agent like Jerick McKinnon, but based on how running backs are currently selected, blowing a fourth round pick without giving McFarland a real chance on the field seems like a missed opportunity.
Durant seems like the version of what McFarland should have been in college. He is faster than McFarland and his best season was his last, not his first. He spent four years in the ACC, not two, and managed to win a team MVP award in his junior season and First Team All-ACC in his senior season. Football can be a cold business for running backs and if Durant is truly better than McFarland and wins the job on the field, that can only be a good thing for the Black and Gold. However, the idea of both him and Snell washing out after spending back-to-back fourth round picks on running backs in 2019 and 2020 is a little too much to fathom.
McFarland is supposed to know this offense. Snell was a power back who does not fit the team’s offense anymore. The Steelers owe themselves the opportunity not to give up on another skill position player just two years into his career, especially one who was billed as a dynamic change of pace back who could thrive in spot duty as a viable RPO option and a difficult matchup in space for coverage linebackers. He did flash burst in 2020 in very limited duty and I remember thinking when Snell entered games to spell James Conner, why not use McFarland. He was at least an actual change of pace.
Maybe Ben Roethlisberger kept him off the field, because he wasn’t confident in his pass protection or because of the fourth down play that went awry versus the Washington Commanders late in 2020. But Roethlisberger seemed to support him publicly when he was set to return in October 2021.
“I think he was doing some really good stuff before he got hurt.” He continued. “People that have been out here have seen a guy that has got a little burst, a guy that maybe can add a little something extra to this offense.”
Are the Steelers Actually Bad at Drafting Skill Positions?
Steeler Nation has sung the praises of Kevin Colbert in his final days as a draft genius and the evidence to support that over his entire career is ample. However, between 2017 and 2020, the Steelers have spent draft capital on JuJu Smith-Schuster, Conner, James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, Diontae Johnson, Snell, Chase Claypool, and McFarland. Most of the fanbase is down on Johnson and Claypool, and if McFarland does not gain a significant role, then that is at least six and potentially eight wasted picks on skill position players in recent drafts.
Everyone is excited about the Steelers offense with second year players Harris and Pat Freiermuth and all the shiny new toys from the 2022 NFL Draft. But if the Steelers aren’t going to play with these toys under Canada, then what good is having them?
What do you think, Steeler Nation? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.