PITTSBURGH — There is almost no question that the Steelers will look to increase the talent level of their running back during this week’s 2021 NFL Draft after finishing dead last in the league in rushing in 2020 and letting incumbent starter James Conner walk in free agency.
The question is whether the team will use a first-round pick on the running back position.
The team has several important needs, with players less experienced than current top back Benny Snell Jr. at the top of the depth chart at center, cornerback and tackle, and there’s been a strong trend around the league of teams not placing first-round grades on running backs over the last few years. In the last five draft classes, just eight running backs total have been taken in the first round.
That’s likely been in response to running backs being seen as more fungible assets and players that are not typically good candidates for second contracts because of injury concerns and the speed at which players at the position can age.
Former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, the team’s last high-round draft pick in the second round in 2013, is 29, remains a free agent and has not had a 1,000-yard season since he was in Pittsburgh in 2017. If he’s not able to get back to that level of production after rushing for 328 yards in 2020, he’ll finish his career with just three 1,000-yard seasons despite being considered one of the best backs in the NFL in that time.
Under general manager Kevin Colbert, the Steelers have drafted a first-round running back just one, taking Illinois running back Rashad Mendenhall in 2008. That’s another cautionary tale, as Mendenhall produce two 1,000-yard seasons, got close another, was injured in 2012, left the Steelers in 2013 and was out of football a year later.
Colbert’s predecessors didn’t do much better, with the team’s previous three first-round backs Tim Worley (1989), Walter Abercrombie (1982) and Greg Hawthorne (1979) failing to produce a single 1,000-yard season between them. You have to go back to Franco Harris in 1972 to find a Steelers first-round running back that’s been an unmitigated success.
That’s part of the case against drafting early-round running backs, but Steelers Colbert doesn’t seem to ascribe to the belief that running backs are poor value in the first round. In his estimation, it depends on the player.
“I don’t think you can ever underestimate the value of a quality player at any position, and running back is no different,” Colbert said. “I understand that the game has changed. It’s a more horizontal game than it is a vertical game and people don’t play traditional football as really Coach (Tomlin) and I grew up with with two-back sets and power games and so on and so forth. It has changed.
“But if you have a dynamic player at any position, that player should make a difference. Running back is no different. I think if you look at the Hall of Fame runners, most of those guys were taken in high rounds. I don’t ever place that value high or low on a given position. I base it on who the player is and what that player can do to help us.”
There is plenty of evidence to back Colbert’s point of view, as well. The Raiders’ Josh Jacobs, the lone first-round running back of 2019, made the Pro Bowl last season, making four of the last eight first-round running backs to be so honored.
With the Steelers likely eyeing up a choice between Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne, they could certainly decide one of them is talented enough to be one of those first-round difference makers.