PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have their top two running backs set in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, but there is a third spot on the depth chart that has gone unfilled since the departure of Benny Snell via free agency earlier this offseason.
The Steelers have four other running backs on their 90-man offseason roster, but when I asked Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on Wednesday about the backs competition to fill that spot, he only mentioned one name: fourth-year back Anthony McFarland.
“Ant Mac, he’s the elder statesman in the room,” Faulkner said. “He’s somebody that we’re really taking a look at. We already kind of know what it is that he can do and we’re just trying to feature him in some things. I think Ant could definitely be in that role.”
McFarland is older than both Harris and Warren, but he’s far less experienced. He played in 11 games in 2020 as a rookie as the third back behind James Conner and Benny Snell.
In 2021, the drafting of Harris coincided with a preseason knee injury that essentially cost McFarland the entire season. He finished with just three carries.
Last season, Harris and Snell entered the year at one and two, but everyone was taken by surprise when Warren surged from an undrafted free agent to the No. 2 back, passing both McFarland and Snell in the process. McFarland ended up on the practice squad, getting called up for just one game and carrying the ball six times.
This season, with Snell moved on, it feels like it’s finally McFarland’s time, and he’s been working hard to make sure he takes advantage of it, both on and off the field.
“It’s understanding the game,” McFarland said. “Watching more film, understanding tendencies and formations and what the defense is trying to do. I never really understood that my rookie year. College, it’s easy to get away with stuff. You rely on your athleticism a lot. But in the NFL, you learn quickly it’s not going to be that. Everybody’s good, everybody’s athletic at this level. It’s the little things that matter. … I’ve come a long way from my rookie year.”
Unlike Snell, who was another big, physical back in a similar mold as Harris, McFarland brings something different to the table as a third option. He’s extremely fast, having run a 4.44-second 40-yard dash coming out of Maryland, and he can create problems with mismatches in the secondary.
“I think it makes it fun for schematic purposes,” Faulkner said. “You can do some things mismatch wise. Ant Mac is a really good route runner. Getting him in one on one situations with backers, that is different. It’s good when you have that because it gives you different ways and things you can do schematically.”
McFarland has always been fast and a good receiver. What he’s focused on this offseason is making sure he’s the best possible all-around back, in addition to having those natural strengths. He wants to be trusted to do every job, not just the narrow part he’s played when he got his previous chances.
McFarland also said he’s learned to value the importance of special teams, and understands that if he’s going to carve out that role for himself, it will take efforts in multiple phases.
“I’ll do everything,” he said. “I just really want to cover my role and help the team win games.”