The Pittsburgh Steelers running game is in need of a serious makeover. The Steelers have finished last or second to last in rushing yards per game the last two seasons and have ranked in the bottom 10 every year since 2017. Not all of that can be blamed on one specific player or position, but the quickest way to immediately improve the running game is to obtain a difference making player at the running back position.
The Steelers decided to part ways with hometown hero James Conner this offseason and their running back depth chart is very questionable to say the least. Benny Snell, a third-round draft pick in 2019, has shown flashes of being a solid running back, but his career average of 3.6 yards per rush isn’t going to create much excitement among the Steelers coaching staff or fan base. Anthony McFarland was a fourth-round draft pick in the 2020 draft, but his size and vision have shown to be serious limitations so far in the NFL. Jaylen Samuels and Kalen Ballage are also on the roster, but neither will fit the role of a difference maker at running back and one will likely not even make the roster in 2021.
So, what are the Steelers options to immediately improve the run game? Well, their salary cap situation and an underwhelming free agent class restricted their options in bringing in an already established NFL running back. Former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell is still out on the free agent market, but his game has significantly diminished and his soured relationship with management makes the situation far from reality. Their last choice, and more than likely their first choice after not resigning Conner, is to draft a difference making running back in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Among most draft experts, there are three running backs who will make an immediate impact at the next level: Najee Harris, Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams. After the top three are off the board, there aren’t a lot of players left that can step in Week 1 and significantly improve a team’s running game. Each of the top three runners have varying styles, but all three are exactly what the Steelers need in the backfield – a game changer who can seriously impact the results of a contest.
Many struggle to find the justification of taking a running back in round one. Yes, every draft there are runners that are picked on day two or day three that make Pro Bowls and even become All-Pro players in the league. However, this draft class is not as deep as most and the Steelers can’t afford to take a flyer on a mid-round pick based on the state of their running back depth. Below are a couple advantages to taking a running back in round one:
- Team control for at least five years. After drafting a player in the first round, a team has the option to flex a fifth-year option on that player before they can enter into free agency. The fifth-year option does not come as cheap as their rookie contracts, but they are significantly cheaper than a brand new contract that will likely include a hefty signing bonus. Teams are also able to place the franchise tag on a player as well before offering them a long-term extension which could keep the first round pick in black and gold for an additional one to two years (i.e. Bud Dupree). This could allow the Steelers to potentially keep their first round pick in Pittsburgh for 6-7 years without committing to a long-term contract.
- You are getting a player who can step in right away and play. This is not necessarily the case for every first round selection, but running backs are a bit different. The transition for running backs is simpler from college to the NFL which allows most first round picks to become a team’s primary runner during their rookie season. There are obviously outliers, especially for players that get injured in the preseason, but most first round rookie running backs are able to step in Week 1 and make an immediate impact.
Yes, this team has many holes they need to fill, but other positions such as offensive lineman are much deeper in terms of talent. If the Steelers miss out on a running back in round one, then it’s almost a guarantee the three primary backs will be gone by the time they get to pick in round 2. However, there are linemen that will be available in rounds 2 and 3 that can come in and compete for a starting position this season. Overall, the quickest way this running game turns around is to select Harris, Etienne or Williams with pick 24.
Who do you want the Steelers to choose in the first round? Sound off in the comments below!