As we move deeper and deeper into June, we’re closer and closer to football getting underway in Latrobe once again, signaling the start of another season of Pittsburgh Steelers football.
Looking to grind through the offseason, I’ve started my yearly Ranking the Rooms series within the AFC North. Last week, I kick-started the series with the QBs. Today, I’m focusing on the running backs.
Gone from the division are Le’Veon Bell, as well as Alex Collins and Javorius Allen, while Kareem Hunt and Mark Ingram enter the picture in the AFC North.
Let’s see how things shake out from my viewpoint.
1. Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb was terrific last season down the stretch after the Cleveland Browns handed the starting running back job to the former University of Georgia star. Chubb rushed for 996 yards and 8 touchdowns on just 192 carries last season, adding two more receiving touchdowns in the process. He emerged quickly as a legitimate bell-cow running back that fits Cleveland’s offense.
Despite Chubb’s success, general manager John Dorsey didn’t stand pat, controversially adding Hunt in the off-season to a 1-year deal. Hunt will miss the first 8 games of the season due to a suspension for kicking a woman last year, but even with Hunt on the roster it’s quite clear the Browns have the most talented backfield in the division.
That doesn’t even include Duke Johnson, who could be a starter on most teams in the league. Johnson does want a trade out of Cleveland for a better opportunity elsewhere, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better 1-3 in the division, let alone the league at the running back position.
Trayone Gray and Dontrell Hilliard are sleeper names to watch at running back for the Browns. Hilliard made some plays on special teams last season for Cleveland, while Gray was a former highly touted recruit for Miami (Fl.) but struggled with injuries throughout his career.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
Much like the Browns, the Bengals have a legitimate 1-2 punch in Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard that many around the league envy.
Mixon had a breakout year last season for the Bengals, rushing for just under 1,200 yards in 14 games, averaging nearly 5.0 yards per carry behind arguably the worst offensive line in the league. He’s a great combination of speed and power, and adds a receiving dimension out of the backfield for the Bengals. Along with Mixon, Bernard is the perfect compliment to the third-year running back. Much like Johnson in Cleveland, Bernard could be a starter on his own team; he’s that talented as a runner and a receiver.
Alas, Bernard is stuck behind Mixon in Cincinnati’s offense, but that’s great for the Bengals, who have two very talented backs to turn to. The reason the Bengals sit second though is due to the depth this group potentially has behind these two, thanks to the two rookies they drafted in April in Trayveon Williams from Texas A&M and Rodney Anderson from Oklahoma.
Williams was in my top 5 running backs in the class and ended up landing with the Bengals, which caused me a great deal of discomfort, while Anderson likely would have been a top back in the class before injuries befell him.
I have a feeling that if Anderson can shake the injuries that have plagued him throughout his collegiate career, he can work his way into the No. 2 role in Cincinnati and could potentially push Mixon in a year or two; he’s that talented.
The Bengals have quite a few highly touted running backs in that room. It wouldn’t shock me if next season they overtake the Browns in this ranking.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
If I were ranking just starters in this list, I’d probably have James Conner as the No. 1 running back in the AFC North. Last season was a coming-out party for the former Pitt standout.
Conner showed he is more than capable of replacing Bell as the second-year back emerged as a borderline-elite running and receiving back. Unfortunately for Conner, he was hit by the injury bug again and missed three games last season, which came right in the middle of an important run for the Steelers.
Who knows what happens if Conner stays healthy, but there’s plenty of things to be ecstatic about with Conner moving forward.
Behind him though, there’s plenty of talent, but talent that is largely unproven. That’s why I have the Steelers third here.
Jaylen Samuels was adequate in place of Conner late last season, highlighted by 142 rushing yards against the New England Patriots at home. However, it’s clear Samuels is more of a receiving back than a runner at this current point in his career. That’s not a knock whatsoever because Samuels is very good as a receiver; it’s just a fact.
The Steelers knew that, so they added Kentucky star Benny Snell in the fourth round, adding another high-end runner to the room behind Conner. Snell and Samuels very well may be perfect compliments to Conner down the line, but heading into the 2019 season they’re relatively unknowns as runners, so there’s a lack of proven depth there for Pittsburgh.
Ralph Webb is an intriguing option as a fourth running back and special teams player. I liked him quite a bit coming out of Vanderbilt, but he simply hasn’t caught on anywhere yet. Maybe that happens in Pittsburgh.
4. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens moved on from Collins late last season and signed Ingram in the offseason, giving Baltimore an experienced, veteran back to pair with Lamar Jackson in Year 2.
However, Ingram has a ton of wear on his tires (1,549 career touches, 1,321 carries) and moves to an offense that is much less explosive and experimental in Baltimore compared to what he’s known for seven years in New Orleans.
Ingram will be a steadying presence, but how much is left in the tank? That’s the question. The Ravens seem to have that question on their mind as well, as they drafted explosive rookie Justice Hill of Oklahoma State in the fourth round.
Ideally, Hill pairs with Jackson to form an explosive backfield that could give the division fits.
Gus Edwards had a small breakout for the Ravens last season, but the luster wore off quickly as teams figured out his style and shut him down. He’s a bruiser in an era that focuses on speed and elusiveness, neither of which Edwards seems to possess.
Last season’s rankings:
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Baltimore Ravens
- Cleveland Browns