2020 Training Camp Battles: Running Back Depth

With our series breaking down each position on the roster completed, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2020 season.

This is not a conventional offseason, of course, for obvious reasons, which is likely to play a role in many of these battles, some in ways that we might not foresee. Generally speaking, it should favor players who have greater experience, but there’s a reason these questions are left unanswered until we get on the field.

Position: Running Back

Up for Grabs: Depth

In the Mix: Jaylen Samuels, Kerrith Whyte, Wendell Smallwood, Trey Edmunds, Ralph Webb

The assumption of this article is that running backs James Conner, Benny Snell, and rookie Anthony McFarland will be regarded as locks to make the 53-man roster this year. It also assumes that the conditions are right such that there is a high degree of probability that the Steelers carry four running backs on the roster.

With these assumptions in mind, the question is who the fourth running back will be, and there are five contenders for that one spot, including three running backs who finished the season on the 53-man roster—Samuels, Edmunds, and Whyte.

Edmunds will have the hardest time to make it from this group, outside of Webb, who spent time on the practice squad this year. I believe it really comes down to Samuels, who has been on the team for two years, Whyte, who showed flashes late last year and can return kicks, and Smallwood, a veteran recently brought in who also plays special teams.

The case for Samuels is the fact that he is a receiving back. He actually owns his school record for career receptions, and he had among the most receptions for the Steelers last year. His numbers looked bad, but it’s about what he looks like this year. He suffered a knee injury in 2019, and that has to be taken into consideration.

Then there is Whyte, whom the Steelers signed off the Bears’ practice squad with six weeks left to play. His kick return average was bad, but that was as a rookie acquired midseason with no familiarity with the unit. As a running back, he showed burst, and has the potential for development.

Finally, Smallwood provides veteran experience that is otherwise lacking in this unit behind Conner. He has been in the league for four years already, albeit in a complementary role, and has shown the ability to play in all phases. He is not an explosive player, but perhaps is a dependable option from a schematic perspective.

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