The Pessimist’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 pessimistic side of the coin.

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

With Le’Veon Bell currently the only running back of note under contract, the Steelers have some work to do in order to put together a respectable stable of running backs if they hope to insulate themselves from injury.

Those other running backs under contract include Alvester Alexander, Miguel Maysonet, and Tauren Poole, all former undrafted free agents, all lacking experience of any kind. It’s doubtful the team will be able to count on getting anything from them.

So where will the rest of the running backs come from? Isaac Redman was cut in order to make room for an extra linebacker, which suggests that his time has run out with the Steelers, and perhaps with the rest of the league.

Jonathan Dwyer would be a natural re-signing, but he’s certainly not a back without warts. While his pass protection has gradually improved since his rookie season, his receiving ability leaves much to be desired.

When it comes to having the ball in his hands, he can struggle to make his own holes when necessary, and doesn’t have the speed to get to the edge or break away for big gains often. At this point, he seems to have settled on the fact that he is a complementary back, even if he did have back-to-back 100-yard performances in 2012.

Behind him would likely be LaRod Stephens-Howling, according to Jim Wexell, who wrote that the organization seems to favor bringing him back more than the media covering the team.

The issue with Stephens-Howling, of course, is the fact that he’s coming off an ACL tear, and given that he’s a miniscule back that relies on his speed and quickness to remain effective, that could be a critical difference in his game, even if he only loses a step in his speed.

Felix Jones generally performed adequately, but not much beyond that, and there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to bring him back for a second year. This leads me to believe that the Steelers may resort to targeting a back in the draft.

While there are some notable free agent names available, there may not be one that comes with much cost efficiency, and while the Steelers have gotten some help with a higher than expected salary cap, they still must be frugal, especially when we’re talking about exclusively a backup.

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