The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The Steelers will run out of a running-back-by-committee approach this season with each runner having a niche, outside of James Conner as the lead runner.
Explanation: Pittsburgh has invested in the running back position over the past four years with Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, and Anthony McFarland. Now Conner is in the final year of his contract, so they probably want to know what the other guys look like, and what skills they bring to the table.
A year ago, the running backs talked throughout the offseason about how they were all going to get their opportunities. In the end, they kind of did, as they had three different backs get at least 100 touches on the year. While it hopefully won’t be due to injury, we should see three backs get 100-plus touches this year as well.
James Conner will remain the lead back, but they won’t be asking him to play 90-plus percent of the snaps. Benny Snell will be his primary backup and will probably be given a couple of series per game, perhaps with some niche short-yardage work as well.
Beyond that, you have options, depending on whether you keep three or four backs. Anthony McFarland is a change-of-pace back who can offer you speed. If he shows well, 50-plus touches wouldn’t be a surprise. If Jaylen Samuels makes the roster, he is your four-minute back as the most hands-ready receiver of the group.
At the end of the day, the rep distribution comes down to Mike Tomlin, not the running backs, and whenever he gets asked, he always says he’s a lead-back kind of guy. Conner is his lead back. If he is healthy and he can handle the workload, he’s going to get 350-plus touches this season between rushes and receptions.
That’s always been his approach throughout his tenure in Pittsburgh. It’s easily documented whenever he’s had a featured runner, whether it’s Willie Parker or Rashard Mendenhall or Le’Veon Bell or Conner. And Conner is a complete back who can catch well and make people miss, and is their best pass protector, enabling this approach.