The Pittsburgh Steelers added to their running back depth chart a few weeks ago by selecting Maryland product Anthony McFarland Jr. with their first of two fourth round 2020 draft picks. McFarland, an undersized, yet speedy, running back, now joins James Conner, Benny Snell Jr. Jaylyn Samuels, Trey Edmunds, Kerrith Whyte and Ralph Webb on that position’s depth chart. On Thursday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was a guest on a Steelers Nation United conference call with fans of the team and at one point he was asked about the addition of McFarland in this year’s draft and if that will lead to more of a running back by committee approach in 2020
“You know, I’m a featured runner-type guy by mentality,” Tomlin said. “I think that when you have a featured runner, it gives them an opportunity to drop a stake in the ground. It allows others to rally around him and gives you a set of core base run plays that he specializes in and you find rhythm in that way. But no question, in today’s game a featured running needs to be supplemented and supplemented by guys who are capable of doing similar things in case he misses time, but also supplemented by guys who are capable of doing some different things and maybe challenge the defense in different ways. And I think that’s just the makeup of our group right now.”
The Steelers are hoping that Conner can rebound from his injury-plagued 2019 season in 2020 and ultimately produce a season similar to, if not better than, the one he had in 2018. Tomlin stated the obvious on Thursday by telling fans during the conference call that the current plan is for Conner to be the team’s featured running back in 2020. He also talked about Snell, the Steelers fourth-round selection in 2019 out of Kentucky, and his potential role in 2020 as well.
“James is a featured runner and a proven guy when healthy and we’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020,” Tomlin said. “Benny Snell is a guy that’s capable of being a featured runner, who plays with a physical style in a similar manner as James and might be capable of being a James-type guy if James is unavailable.”
Tomlin also made sure to talk a little about what McFarland brings to the team’s stable of running backs in addition to highlighting the offseason addition of fullback Derek Watt via free agency.
“We’re excited about McFarland, who brings a different component, who’s got cat quickness and is quick to speed and is capable of producing big plays in open spaces, Tomlin said of the rookie running back out of Maryland. “So, we like the collection of guys we have in the group. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the addition of Derek Watt at the fullback position. Excited about him.”
Last season the Steelers were hoping that Conner could be the team’s featured running back and he was for the most part to start with as he registered 64 percent of all running back touches in the team’s first seven regular season games. Conner, however, suffered a shoulder injury in that week 7 Monday night home game against the Miami Dolphins and it resulted in him touching the football just 24 more times in the team’s final nine games of the season, of which he missed nearly seven of.
After Conner suffered his shoulder injury, Snell, Samuels, Whyte, Edmunds, and Tony Brooks-James all carried the football at least eight times with Snell logging the most rushing attempts of the five with 85. Those five running backs, along with Conner and his limited participation, averaged just 3.91 yards per carry in the team’s final nine regular season games and combined to have a far less than 46 percent successful run rate to boot.
Steelers team president Art Rooney II gave an early offseason directive that the team’s running game must be more successful than it was in 2019. With Conner back healthy again and McFarland now on the scene, Tomlin sounds optimistic that Rooney’s directive will be carried out.
“So, man, we’re excited about what the group is going to do largely, Tomlin said Thursday. “But usually when it’s going well, it’s because you have a lead dog out front and that guy is the featured runner.”