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Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Analysis By Position: Running Back

The 2020 NFL Draft is currently a little more than 100 days away from getting underway. And while the bulk of free agency will have already taken place for the Pittsburgh Steelers by the end of April, the team will still have several holes that will need to be filled come the annual college player selection event. Way ahead of us getting deep into our annual draft player profiles on this site, I’ll be guiding readers through a position group-by-position group breakdown of the Steelers roster that includes how high of a priority each position is likely to be come the start of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Today a look at the Steelers running back position group as it relates to possible need in the 2020 NFL Draft.

2019 Running Back Position Group Overview:

The Steelers running game in 2019 was abysmal, to say the least. As a team, the Steelers rushed for 1447 yards and the running backs accounted for 1,286 of those yards. Not only is the 3.74 yards per carry average by Steelers running backs in 2019 hard to look at, so too is the 44.1 percent successful run rate posted by that group of six players. On first and 10 runs in 2019 the Steelers running backs had a dismal 40.7 percent successful run rate. The Steelers loss of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season in Week 2 to an elbow injury easily allowed opposing defenses to key in more on Pittsburgh’s running game. Additionally, the Steelers top three running backs heading into the 2019 season, James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr., had a combined 11 games missed due to injury. The team also only had fullback Roosevelt Nix for three games in 2019 and that includes the season opening game that he was injured in that prevented him from playing any offensive snaps. The Steelers offensive line and tight ends also under-performed as a whole in the running game in 2019.

Current Steelers 2020 Running Back Depth Chart As Of January 6, 2020

James Conner – When Conner was healthy during the 2019 season, his play, for the most part, was above the line. Conner, however, was never really healthy from Week 8 of the season and on and thus he carried the football just 19 times for 84 yards and caught just five passes for 15 yards in the team’s final nine games. Can Conner be counted on to stay healthy moving forward? It will be hard to trust that he can. If he can, however, there’s no reason to think that he won’t be the same player that registered 1,470 yards and 13 touchdowns during the 2018 season. Even so, Conner’s days of being a workhorse running back in Pittsburgh might be over to save wear and tear on him.

Jaylen Samuels – As a whole, Samuels’ 2019 season was disappointing and the highlight of it was him catching 13 passes for 73 yards against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9. Samuels’ successful run rate in 2019 left a lot to be desired and while he entered the NFL as player adept at possibly being used in the passing game from any alignment, he dropped five targets in 2019 on his way to registering a 6.5 yards per reception number. His pass protection, while improved from his 2018 rookie season, is still far from where it needs to be. Samuels isn’t much of a special teams contributor to boot. Will Samuels be on the Steelers 2020 53-man roster? It’s possible, but he certainly shouldn’t be considered a lock to do so just the same.

Benny Snell Jr. – The Steelers fourth-round draft selection in 2019 had a fine rookie season overall even though it included him missing three games in the middle of the it due to a knee injury when the team probably could have used him the most in their backfield. Snell showed during his rookie season that he could run with the same kind of power that he did in college at Kentucky and that includes him being successful in short-yardage situations. He led all Steelers running backs in explosive runs in 2020 and was more than adequate as a pass protector as his rookie season wore on. He contributed on special teams in all four phases as well. Snell will most definitely be back in 2020 and should be allowed to compete with Conner for the starting running back spot. He figures to be in much better shape in his second season and could wind up showing that he has what it takes to be the team’s top running back for the next few seasons.

Kerrith Whyte Jr. – Whyte, who was originally selected by the Chicago Bears in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft, wasn’t added to the team until Week 12. Whyte’s late arrival predictably resulted in limited offensive usage as the speedster out of Florida Atlantic registered all of 40 offensive snaps in the six games that he played in after being signed off the Bears practice squad. To his credit, 11 of Whyte’s 24 total carries resulted in successful plays, as hid his lone reception of the season. While Whyte was also asked to return kickoffs after he arrived in Pittsburgh, his 18.9-yard average on 14 opportunities isn’t an eye-popping number, even though it was tops for the team in 2019. Whyte will get a much longer look during the offseason and with good reason. While not a lock for 2020, he could potentially be a change of pace option for the Steelers next season in addition to being their kickoff returner. There’s little upside seemingly remaining in this unpolished late-round draft pick.

Trey Edmunds – Edmunds had two main highlights in 2019. One was his 45-yard run against the Colts, the Steelers longest run of the season. The second was his interception on a fake punt against the Los Angeles Rams. Edmunds’ main value to the Steelers in 2019 was as a special teams player as most of the 93 total offensive snaps he played were nondescript. Edmunds is far from a lock to make the Steelers 53-man roster in 2020 even as a special teams player so that lets you know all you need to know about his running back abilities.

Ralph Webb – After ending the 2018 season on the Steelers practice squad, Webb was part of the 90-man roster the team took to training camp. However, an undisclosed injury prior to the team’s first preseason game resulted in Webb being waived injured from the 90-man roster and ultimately waived from the team’s Reserve/Injure list not long thereafter with a settlement. Webb ultimately got himself healthy as the season progressed and the Steelers brought him back to their practice squad in November and he remained on that 11-man unit the remainder of the season. The Steelers promptly signed Webb to another Reserve/Future contract right after the 2019 season was over with and here we are now. Logic tells you that Webb is likely to be a longshot to make the 2020 53-man roster. Stranger things have happened, however. Webb’s first battle this offseason includes him making it to the team’s first preseason game and that might be hard to do with the running back depth chart expected to grow by a few players between now and the start of rookie minicamp.

Draft Need Level: Low

Like it, or not, the Steelers have four players running backs under contract for 2020 with good shot at making the team’s 53-man roster out of the preseason. Those four players are Conner, Samuels, Snell and Whyte. In the last three drafts the Steelers have used a third, a fifth and a fourth-round selection on a running back and thus spending yet another day two-selection on the position would seem highly unlikely with all the other positions that should be designated as having more urgency in being addressed. Should, however, the Steelers deem running back a higher need than most of us on this site do, they should do so in the second-round in attempt to get a top one in this year’s draft class. Otherwise, the Steelers should select a running back much later in the draft, if they even draft one art all. while a lot of things can certainly change for the Steelers at the running back position between now and the 2020 NFL Draft, don’t expect the team to select one in the second, third or fourth round. Also don’t be surprised if the Steelers bypass the running back position altogether in the 2020 NFL Draft. If it’s of any consolation, this year’s running back draft class seems to be deep at first glance. In short, the Steelers might be able to find a quality candidate to compete for a roster spot in 2020 in the later rounds.

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