The Optimist’s Take – Running Back Depth

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: Where will the running back depth come from in 2014, and what will it offer?

As it stands right now, the Steelers have only one of the five running backs from last season under contract for 2014, with that one being, obviously, Le’Veon Bell. The other four—Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and LaRod Stephens-Howling—are all unrestricted free agents.

Of the four, Redman was cut during the season. Dwyer was cut before the season began, only to be re-signed when Stephens-Howling was lost for the year. Jones was traded for late in the preseason to provide depth and competition.

We all know that Bell is at the top of the depth chart, with no competition. Dwyer, however, proved to be a more than capable short-yardage and change-of-pace back. As I wrote previously, he averaged nearly 4.4 yards per carry following the team’s early Bye to the end of the season.

According to Jim Wexell, the front office is evidently higher on bringing back Stephens-Howling than the majority on the outside of the organization believe. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been looking to bring in a Dexter McCluster-type runner since coming to Pittsburgh, only to be foiled by the frail Chris Rainey and then the opening day injury to Stephens-Howling last year.

Assuming that he will be healthy (and there are no indications that he would not be), he should be able to provide the lateral and receiving threat that Haley and the organization covets for outside zone packages. While he had little opportunity, he showed up impressively in the preseason while not battling injuries, so as long as he’s healthy, he should add a dynamic to the running game that the team has been waiting on for a while now.

Beyond Dwyer and Stephens-Howling, there are many ways the Steelers can go if they wish to carry four running backs, as they did to start the 2013 season. Most notable would be Alvester Alexander, who spent the entire year on the practice squad after being a late addition to replace Curtis McNeal. He did well in the preseason and could earn time on the active roster in his second year with the organization.

Also under futures contracts are Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole. Both are former undrafted free agents and are unknowns, but could perhaps surprise, or at least provide competition for Alexander.

More likely, the Steelers could target another running back in the draft, probably in the later stages of the draft, especially if the team is actually awarded a compensatory pick in the seventh round. A moderate free agent signing is not impossible, but probably unnecessary, as Dwyer has shown in the past that he could carry the load as long as the offensive line holds up its end of the bargain.

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