The 2022 NFL Draft was a bit different for the Pittsburgh Steelers than what we’re used to. Instead of seeking out big, heavy, physical linemen, running backs, and linebackers, Steeler Nation saw two quarterbacks, two receivers, and only two defensive players called by Pittsburgh. This came as a shock to some, as the Steelers used their first four picks squarely on improving the running game from 2021. This resulted in the Steelers posting the fourth-worst rushing offense in the entire NFL last season. Historically speaking, the Steelers are a team who draft linebackers, running backs, and linemen (both offensive and defensive) in almost every draft. Therefore, there was an underlying assumption fans would see a young running-mate for Najee Harris called at some point on the third day of the draft; that call never came. But with that said, the Steelers may have grabbed some of the best value after the draft concluded at the running back position.
That ‘value’ came in the form of Mataeo Durant from Duke.
You’re probably wondering why I consider an undrafted free agent rookie is a value piece going into camp. But let’s set the stage. After an abysmal 2020 rushing attack, the Steelers selected Harris with their first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Although Harris had an incredible first season, he was asked to do a lot on offense as both a rusher and pass-catcher. Although he was drafted to be that ‘workhorse’ back, the last thing any organization wants to do is run the wheels off a potential franchise player early in his career.
This begs the need of a solid ‘RB2’ in 2022. Sure, there is Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr., and Trey Edmunds already in the mix, but there is a steep drop-off in production between them and Harris. In addition, the Steelers have always been successful when they have an effective two-headed approach in the backfield. I think of Willie Parker with Jerome Bettis, Mewelde Moore, Isaac Redman, even throw Gary Russell into that conversation. But of those names, Moore was the only back-up who was drafted. With that said, even with him being undrafted, there is a lot to look forward to from Durant, and the Steelers seem to agree.
It is worth mentioning first; the Steelers awarded Durant with the biggest undrafted rookie free agent contract for a running back in Steelers’ history.
Albeit, this came in the form of a $15,000 signing bonus, it is clear the Steelers see a lot of value in Durant. This is for good reason, however. In college at Duke, Durant put up solid numbers. His best season was in 2021 where he tallied just under 1,500 total scrimmage yards with 11 touchdowns. He averaged roughly 5-yards per carry and was that dynamic playmaker the Steelers like in a reliable third-down running back. Coincidentally, Durant reminds me of Moore where he can pick up those tough yards whether it be through the pass game or on the ground. But compared to his inner-team competition, how does he stack up going into camp?
As of right now, the Steelers running back room only consists of Harris, Snell, McFarland, Edmunds, Durant, and other UDFA rookie, Jaylen Warren. Simply looking at the veterans in the room, there is a distinct ‘this or that’ in skillsets. If you’re looking for a large, short-yardage, power back you have Edmunds, Snell, and possibly Warren. If you’re looking for a speedy pass-catcher out of the backfield, you have McFarland. Durant falls right in the middle of those abilities. At 6’1”, 195 pounds, Durant isn’t the ‘biggest’ guy out there, but he can drop his shoulder to break through a tackler. With that same frame, he has a fairly nice-sized catch radius and was a productive safety blanket at Duke. Going back and looking at what we’ve seen with the current running backs on the roster, no one has been able to separate themselves from the others for that true back-up to Harris. This competition is arguably very much wide open. What says Durant can’t leap-frog the veterans to win that spot? Steelers’ history shows to be in Durant’s favor.
In short, the Steelers seem to succeed with, and need, a steady third-down running back on the roster. The most recent Super Bowl-winning teams have shown that with Parker, Moore, Redman, and Russell. Looking at the current state of the Steelers’ running back room, this is nowhere to be found in Snell, McFarland, or Edmunds. Durant showed in college he can shoulder a lot of production on offense and move the chains when he needs to. From seeing the Steelers signing Durant to the largest UDFA rookie contract for a running back in their history, it looks like the front office agrees. Only time will tell in determining if Durant is a diamond in the rough or just another undrafted rookie living on a prayer.
How do you think Durant will fare in camp? Who do you see emerging as the back-up to Harris in the backfield? Let us know in the comments section below!