We’re barely more than two weeks out from the first day of the 2020 NFL Draft. And we have *no* idea what direction the Pittsburgh Steelers are even thinking about going when they get on the clock at #49. That’s unlikely to change from now until then. The coronavirus has disrupted the draft process so much that all the clues we heavily rely on, Pro Day trips, Top 30 visits, are useless. That information simply doesn’t exist.
Aside from ruling out the obvious, quarterback and cornerback, it’s impossible to say they won’t draft “X” position. It’s not out of the realm of possibility the organization takes the plunge and selects a RB a #49. The talent may be there; it’s a strong class top to bottom.
But there are valid reasons against it too. We’ve talked about it on The Terrible Podcast several times but I wanted to write down those thoughts into one article to make the case against the position.
1. Four Year Investment For A Top Pick?
Running backs age like milk. Even when you anoint one as “the guy,” you can’t expect to get more than four years – their rookie contract – out of them. Anything beyond that and you’re committing big money to a position that falls off faster than any other. Just ask the Rams about Todd Gurley or the Falcons about De’Vonta Freeman. That’s just inarguable reality.
And to an extent, that’s fine. But for Pittsburgh, taking that guy at #49 presents a long-term problem. Do you want your first pick of the draft to be a one-and-done guy? Play out his rookie year and then in all likelihood, move on elsewhere. This is the dude your entire draft class will be viewed through and it’s harder to justify taking a RB at the top as opposed to say, your second or third choice of the draft.
Losing James Conner after 2020 doesn’t take away from the 2017 class; it was still a great one with TJ Watt at the top. But what if Conner was the team’s first selection? It’d look a little different.
2. Running Back Is So Replaceable
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the idea of ever drafting a running back, even high (though probably not with the first selection, for reasons outlined above). It makes more sense to do it next year when there’s a clear vacancy at the position, assuming Conner is wearing a different uniform. Then you’ll have someone who can step in right away as that lead guy, or splitting time with Benny Snell, without figuring out how to balance the committee of Conner, Snell, and the rookie. That maximizes the value of the pick and when you’re looking at that back as having him for only four years, every moment counts.
Don’t invest in a running back until you have to. The Steelers don’t have to.
3. James Conner Is Talented, Benny Snell Underrated
Can’t forget about who the team currently has. Conner is a three-down talent capable of thriving in this offense. He’s proven that. Health is the issue, obviously, and it’s fair to say he’s become hard to trust and remain healthy, but a rookie back probably won’t be more talented than Conner out of the gate. Definitely not more complete.
And few on this roster are underrated like Snell. He had a successful rookie season despite all stacked against him. A rookie in one of football’s worst offenses, a mid-season surgery he bounced back from in a surprisingly strong way. He ran hard, was serviceable in pass pro and as a receiver, and assuming he drops some weight this offseason (as almost all of the teams “big” backs from done in the past) he’ll be even better in that critical sophomore year.
4. Pittsburgh Still Has Plenty Of Holes To Fill
Interior offensive line. Safety. Edge rusher. Nose tackle. That’s just a short list of positions the team needs to address during the draft and they’re only working with six picks. In that sense, RB feels more luxury given its plug ‘n play, replaceable nature. Finding a RB is a lot easier than a safety, that’s for sure.
Take a RB at #49 and you’re waiting until #102 to start addressing everything else. And that is risky.
5. Fixing The Run Game Manifests Itself In Lots Of Ways
One of the better arguments for the team taking a running back is Art Rooney’s mandate to fix the run game. No question when the owner speaks, the front office responds. But fixing the run game can be done in lots of ways, not just adding a RB. That’s why Rooney didn’t specifically say to add a new face in the backfield, just to fix the production.
They’ve added a fullback in Derek Watt. Don’t expect this offense to go all 1960 and have a FB on the field 70% of the time, but he’ll provide valuable snaps especially in short-yardage, where the Steelers ranked last in. Schematically, there were issues we broke down during the year that need to be tweaked now that Shaun Sarrett has gone through the ringer as the head offensive line coach. The team can still add to its offensive line, though whoever they’d draft may not start.
Above all, Ben Roethlisberger’s return is certainly going to offer some much needed breathing room. Defenses won’t be daring Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges to beat them as they (smartly) did in 2019.