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2020 NFL Draft

Steelers Hope Anthony McFarland, Jr. Can Be Big-Play Threat

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There was a lot of speculation before the 2020 NFL Draft that the Steelers might trade one of their fourth-round picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars for disgruntled star back Leonard Fournette.

Fournette, a 6-foot, 228-pound bruiser, rushed 265 times for 1,152 yards (4.3 yards per carry) in 2019 as the absolute centerpiece of a Jacksonville offense that struggled mightily to throw the ball, bouncing between an injured and ineffective Nick Foles and inexperienced rookie Gardner Minshew II.

It was a similar story to what happened in Pittsburgh in 2019, as power backs James Conner (4.0 yards per carry) and Benny Snell (3.9 yards per carry) struggled to move the ball on the ground without the threat of an over-the-top passing game that was neutered by the loss of Ben Roethlisberger.

It might have been too similar of a situation. Fournette, while talented, replicates a lot of the skillsets that Conner and Snell bring to the table.

Instead, the Steelers used one of those fourth-round picks on a running back with a decidedly different skillset in Maryland’s Anthony McFarland, Jr.

What McFarland brings to the table is a bit of home-run speed that the Steelers have been lacking. McFarland’s 4.44-second 40-yard dash time is is nearly two-tenths of a second faster than Conner’s.

Conner had just 16 rushes for more than 10 yards in 2019. The Baltimore Ravens had three players with more: Lamar Jackson, who led the NFL with 47, Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards. It’s a significant need for the Steelers to find someone that can more frequently turning running plays into big plays. They think that can be McFarland.

“He is really explosive,” Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner said. “He gets from zero to 60 really quick. Quickness, speed and has shown the ability to hit the long ball. That is a little bit of a change from what we have. We have those people who are capable of doing it, but when you compare him to the likes of Conner and Benny, he is a little different as a runner which I think makes us more valuable as a group.”

Of course, McFarland, being the junior statesman in a committee that also includes Conner, Snell and Jaylen Samuels, is not going to get a ton of touches right away. In order to make an impact, he’s going to have to show the ability to make big plays in a part-time role.

“He has shown the ability to catch the ball,” Faulkner said. “He has shown the ability to run the ball outside, inside. He has that versatility you are looking for as an all-around guy. I think he is a good compliment.”

McFarland also offered another area where he could contribute right away: special teams. Trey Edmunds secured a roster spot as the Steelers’ fourth back through much of 2019, mostly due to his special teams prowess.

“I feel like I can do it all,” McFarland said. “Kick return, I feel like I can do it all and did it. It’s something I need to do to diversify. That’s what I can do. In high school I was an all-purpose back. I feel like any way a coach is going to line me up there on the offense, I can do it. I’m not necessarily too worried about that.”

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