The Pittsburgh Steelers’ ground game wasn’t up to snuff last season, for a variety of reasons, including injuries to each of their top three backs. Entering 2020, they actually return five running backs who ended the previous season on the 53-man roster, and to that group they have added yet another running back in the draft, with fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland. Since training camp opened, they have also signed veteran Wendell Smallwood, giving them seven in total.
Said running backs coach Eddie Faulkner of this group with a diversity of qualifications, “I feel like there’s a lot of options”, as he told reporters on Wednesday. “You have experience, for one, not only at playing running back but also on special teams, guys who have been productive”.
The lead back is, of course, James Conner, entering his fourth season, and third as a starter. Benny Snell is entering his second season after rushing for over 400 yards as a rookie, while Jaylen Samuels is entering year three. Kerrith Whyte was picked up off the Bears’ practice squad late last season and showed flashes, while Trey Edmunds is primarily a special teams contributor.
“I just look around the room and I see a lot of talented guys that can help us”, Faulkner said, now in his second season with the team. “These practices that we’re going through now help us find out what they do best to put them in position for us to win some games and go from there”.
Of Conner, he said that his lead runner “when healthy, he’s as good as any in the league”. He also praised Samuels for his versatility, also a receiving threat and even a Wildcat option. Both McFarland and Whyte were noted for their speed and change of direction ability, while Snell has “only gotten better” from his rookie year.
Realistically, the Steelers have more running backs of relative note than they can manage to keep on the 53-man roster. With the addition of fullback Derek Watt, their maximum is four. Conner, Snell, and McFarland seem the safest bets to make the team. If there even is a fourth, it will be decided between Whyte, Samuels, Smallwood, and Edmunds. All of them play special teams, Whyte as a potential kick returner.
Evaluating this group without the benefit of the preseason will be more complicated than under normal circumstances. It’s hard to get a true feel for what a running back is capable of doing when there are no real stakes, especially outside of any full-pads, live-contact sessions.
But it is an interesting group of running backs, on paper, one that should be capable of performing much better, if healthy, than what the group did collectively a year ago. It’s up to Faulkner to help guide them to where they need to be to help the team.