The Pittsburgh Steelers have used a midround draft pick on the running back position in four consecutive years now. That is the first time this has happened since the 1990s, and that is only if you include Jon Witman in the conversation, who was a fullback.
The point is, it’s rare that the Steelers have had this sort of pedigree built up in the backfield all at the same time. And while they have had some talented number two backs in the past—Le’Veon Bell’s backups, for example, LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams—they weren’t utilized under Mike Tomlin, who has professed a workhorse back mentality.
While he has continued to express that preference, there were some signs of moving away from that last year before James Conner was hurt, and that’s worth noting considering that the running backs were talking about that in the offseason.
This year, the Steelers will enter training camp with Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Anthony McFarland, and Kerrith Whyte as their five most significant names, along with a few years, such as Trey Edmunds. Snell and Whyte are both entering their second season, while McFarland is a rookie.
Conner is the lead back in the group, but he likes what he sees behind him. He said that there are “a lot of good backs” in the room. “There’s a lot of athletes in that room, so they’re gonna play huge roles”, including on special teams, which he emphasized. “We want to have as many backs on the field as possible because we feel like we’re an athletic group who can really contribute”.
Samuels had some impressive moments during his rookie season in 2018, but had significant struggles a year ago. It’s also worth noting that he had a midseason knee injury that required a cleanup procedure, however. Snell, who also had a similar issue, showed promise as a rookie in 2019, and Whyte, acquired off the Chicago Bears’ practice squad, offered glimpses of his potential as a change-up speed back.
“Playing running back in this offense, you can get used in a lot of ways”, Conner said. “I think that’s every offense. We need to establish our run game, first and foremost. That’s what it’s gonna be about. That’s what our group is gonna take pride in this year, is getting that running game going. But we’re essential in the passing game. We’re essential in getting passes off”.
That’s true. While Conner wasn’t a big receiver in college, he has caught 89 passes for 748 yards and four touchdowns over the past two years in 22 starts. In Samuels’ two seasons, he has caught 73 passes for 504 yards and four touchdowns.