NFL Draft

Steelers 2021 Wants, Needs and Draft Prospects At Running Back

Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.

Important Want = should improve rather than could.

Need = a missing starter.

This series will look at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.

RUNNING BACK

Time to take a break from the Offensive Line and to look at the most divisive position of them all from Steeler Nation’s point of view. The gorilla in our annual draft room! When should we look for a RB?

There are two opposing schools when it comes to drafting this position. The first wants to pick it’s RB’s high to be sure of getting an elite talent, and then trade them in for a new player after the rookie contract expires. This group focuses the enormous value added by a certified star in the backfield.

“Great RB’s make everything easier for everyone else. Average QB’s look good because of the play-action threat. Average lines look good because great RB’s find even a hole that wasn’t planned for. Average receivers look good because opponents need to stack the box. And average play callers look good because of the 4-minute offense to close games out, combined with all the benefits described above.

The right RB tilts a field more than anyone but a great QB. Just look at what Lev Bell, Jerome Bettis, and Franco Harris did for this team.”

This first school then puts an asterisk on the enthusiasm, protesting that having a star does not mean the team should keep him past the expiration date, which usually appears way too soon. Second contracts may be high to reflect the actual value of the player, but they also need to be short – especially when you consider that your star RB is likely to give you a Round 3-4 compensatory pick if you let him go before the decay sets in. That pick, it is argued, will help the team to move up when it’s time to invest in the next incoming star.

The second school blanches in horror at the idea of picking a RB high in the draft.

“Look at the league leaders in rushing each year. How many of them were picked in the first two rounds? Maybe half? And how many of that half got hurt more often than other high picks from other positions? High picks spent on RB’s only provide value during the rookie deal, while picks on other positions continue to bear fruit all the way through two or even three extensions. It’s therefore better to focus on looking for a mid- to late-round bargain, of which there are many. Besides, average RB’s look great when they are surrounded by quality at those other positions: QB’s, WR’s, scheme fit, and especially good OL’s, all assist a RB every bit as much as his personal skills.

So spend the draft capital on positions that don’t ruin your season with predictable injuries. You can get a very good one in Round 3-5, and ‘very good’ at that price works out better in the long run than ‘great while healthy’ at the cost of your Round 1 pick.”

Being a lawyer in my real life, I naturally try to stand with a foot in both camps. And both make very good points. But do they really disagree? Isn’t it fair to divide the world into (A) the rarified air of Round 1 RB grades, and then (B) everyone else? With everyone else being a Round 3-and-up target, subject to love-affair-reaches for a particular draft crush?

I think it is. So that is the approach I’m going to adopt.

Put another way, the first group includes only those singular talents who can be the roaring engine of the offense. The second group are “only” the wheels of the offense. Make no mistake: that isn’t exactly an insult! You can’t drive at all if you haven’t got wheels, and you can’t drive fast if they don’t have good, grippy tires. But tires and wheels are commodities you buy in bulk at the local shop. Engines are in a whole different category.

I admire the heck out of several of the Steeler RB’s – as human beings and athletes alike – but that doesn’t blind me to the fact that they are wheels, not engines.

  • James Conner. This young man would be a personal sports hero if I was still nine years old. Every off-field story I read about him makes me proud to have him on the team. “Hey James, I’ve got a couple of daughters you might want to meet…!” On the field I see him as a top-20 RB in the league even after applying the discount for my B&G glasses. He is big enough, strong enough, fast enough, and shifty enough to get every available yard, plus one to grow on. But that grade only applies when he’s healthy, which seems to be limited to maybe a dozen games per season. Plus there’s the fact that he will be a free agent in 2021.
  • Benny Snell. A smaller, slightly slower, but squirmier version of the James Conner prototype. The Steelers use him as a short yardage back but he’s more than that. What he lacks is the burst to beat a defender to the edge, and that one extra move to make a defender whiff in the hole rather than “just” getting held to a few yards with an arm tackle. Decent thunder, but not much lightning.
  • Anthony McFarland Jr. The 4th-Round pick from 2020 has flashed the lightning, but so far he’s missing the thunder. Local reporters who get to see practices and interview people on the team seem to have a quiet love affair going for the kid. From that I conclude that he dominates a lot of practices, and occasionally makes even the Steelers defense look silly. Very encouraging! But it hasn’t shown up in actual games yet, he is kind of small, and seeing a player go down for ankle tackles gives me hives. I do not expect much of any rookie, especially one taken on Day 3. So no one here is or ought to be writing the young man off. But I’ll believe it when I see it. The old saying applies until then: “Potential: a one word translation for Ain’t Done Nothing Just Yet.”

Bottom line? Three nice looking sets of wheels, with the best of the three going into free agency. You can make a strong argument that an “engine” at RB would give this team more bang for the draft-buck than any other position over the next five years.

But here’s the thing: this 2021 RB class is awfully short on potential engines. Last year’s class had five of them: J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jonathan Taylor, and Cam Akers. This year’s class has only two:

THE TOP TWO

  • RB Travis Etienne, Clemson. (Senior). 5’10”, 210 lbs. Turns 22 just before the draft. W.E.A.P.O.N. He’s got everything you look for in a back, including the discipline to play within the system and the willingness to stick his face in the fan on blocking duty. You could nitpick by arguing that he is only big rather than huge, and that he benefits from a great team around him. When the system is so good, how much of the startling results really come from the RB himself? Those arguments explain why Etienne deserves a late 1st grade rather than early, but they are pretty weak tea as actual complaints. The kid is electric. Deal with it. He’s even a fine punt and kick returner. The biggest question mark, if you want to call it that, is a 2020 season that wasn’t quite as awesome as 2019. Can’t you hear it? “OMG, he’s fading already!” ROFL. ROUND 1 GRADE
  • RB Najee Harris, Alabama. (Senior). 6’2”, 230 lbs. Turns 23 just before the draft. Solid, solid, solid, with an extremely high floor and a very high ceiling. A big, strong RB who Daniel Jeremiah has compared to Matt Forte, Harris can be trusted to get every inch of what’s available, a lot that wouldn’t be there for lesser backs, and to get stronger as the game goes on. His running game features several powerful assets: (i) tremendous vision, (ii) terrific size and strength, (iii) tremendously quick feet for a man his size with cuts worthy of someone 40 pounds lighter, and (iv) a brutal spin move he uses anywhere and everywhere, which leaves a lot of would-be tacklers snatching at air. Thus (A) he will reliably hit the best available hole, (B) if you stand and wait, and he’ll run you over, (C) he won’t be there if you go in hot, and (D) he’ll vanish from your grasp if you fail to get a perfect grip. Deadly. He’s just as good as a receiver, with both the hands and the route running ability to succeed there too. And he is already an accomplished pocket protector. Pro ready. On the downside, he is plenty fast enough to get around the corner, but he won’t outrun many Safeties toward the pylon. The hardest part is distinguishing which heights he achieved on his own, versus climbing so high on the shoulders of his friends. The BCS championship game may have helped for that one. Ohio State cornered him several times, and then could not bring him down because of individual effort. ROUND 1 GRADE

THE NEXT TWO

  • RB Journey Brown, Penn St. (RS Junior). 5’11”, 216 lbs. Oh, how COVID hurts! Brown was one of the most eagerly anticipated backs of the 2020 season, because he has genuine track star speed combined with excellent size, power, agility, and toughness. He just hadn’t “arrived” as a true, multifaceted football player. Would he demonstrate pass catching ability? Pass blocking? Continued progress in the craft of running that would complement his amazing natural gifts? Would he even break into the Round 1 discussion…? And then his season disappeared out from beneath him. Now his prospects are going to hinge to a huge degree on the interview room, where (alas) you and I cannot go. ROUND 2-3 GRADE 

    (Ed Note: Brown missed 2020 due to an incurable heart condition that will end his football career.) 

  • RB Javonte Williams, N. Car. (Junior). 5’10”, 220 lbs. The thunder to Michael Carter’s lightning in NC’s powerful, 2-headed running attack, Williams has been compared by supporters to a young Cadillac Williams. He runs hard, you can trust him to hit the right hole, he will maximize the available yards, he has a serious nose for the end zone, and he shows excellent vision. Home run speed is not in the equation, but there is enough to turn routine broken tackles into 20 and 30 yard gains. Nice hands as a receiver. Middling as a pass protector. Sounds like Conner and Snell, no? But he’s got at least as much wiggle as Conner, and maybe a little more, which makes him a target for Day 2 who probably won’t last to Round 4. ROUND 2-3 GRADE

THE BIG CLUSTER WITH ROUND 3-5 GRADES (FOR PITTSBURGH)

  • RB Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas. (Senior). 6’0”, 213 lbs. A really interesting piece of the RB puzzle with a lot of assets you like, but may lack the ‘stuff’ you want in a bell cow back. Will be an ideal 3rd-down back if he can learn to pass protect, because he runs great routes and has WR-level hands. Features good vision as a pure RB, with nifty feet and good burst, but his overall elusiveness, straight line speed, and finishing power all classify as “moderate” by NFL standards. Also has a history of getting banged up.
  • RB Michael Carter, N. Car. (Senior). 5’10”, 200 lbs. The lightning to Javonte Williams’ thunder, Carter is a solid RB who’s been hit with a serious discount on this board because he doesn’t seem to fit what Pittsburgh looks for. His game is built on some really admirable agility and vision combined with the kind of wriggly, competitive attitude that lets him fall forward most of the time. The downsides are a lack of the size that Pittsburgh likes, and a lack of the breakaway speed that gets fans in a tizzy. Good hands out of the backfield, and a willing blocker too.
  • RB Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis. (RS Sophomore). 5’11”, 191 lbs. Electric. This would be the change-of-pace target to dream for if Anthony McFarland hadn’t shown so much promise. Even now, there’s a decent chance his lightning quickness, explosive speed, and great hands could let him excel as a slot receiver in addition to RB. Extra points for having such a great name for the position he plays.
  • RB Kylin Hill, Miss. St. (Senior). 5’11”, 215 lbs. Short, wide, strong, and either shifty or punishing as called for. There is a lot to like, including an established ability to block incoming blitzers. What’s lacking is either breakaway speed or the pure size to lose weight and get quicker while still maintaining his college power. How much can he improve in the pros?
  • RB Chuba Hubbard, Okla. St. (RS Junior). 6’0”, 207 lbs. Put the young man on a team that relies on outside zone plays, and then get out of the way. His game is all about the vision, explosion, discipline, and slashing attacks that system calls for. But is that the right fit for what Pittsburgh could use, especially when it’s kind to call his blocking skills poor? Ran for more yards than any other player in 2019, but fell back a bit in the 2020 Covid season.
  • RB Jaret Patterson, Buffalo. (Junior). 5’9”, 195 lbs. A totally different back than anyone the Steelers have featured in recent years, Patterson is a master of the make-you-miss school. The assets he has are close to elite: vision, elusiveness, agility, and contact balance being at the top. A true human pinball with the hands to be effective as an outlet receiver too. What he lacks is pure size and the power that goes with it. Decent speed but not of the instant-acceleration sort. Here is an admiring article from December.
  • RB Trey Sermon, Ohio St. by way of Oklahoma (Senior). 6’0”, 216 lbs. A well-rounded, very aggressive football player who happens to play running back, Sermon loves to put a hurt on the defense. It might be as a blocker in pass protection, or with a ferocious stiff arm, or by simply running someone over, but this is a back who loves the hitting part of the game and has enough size and power to do it well. The physical assets like burst, cutting ability, contact balance, vision, and hands are all good to very good, with none that qualify as “special”. Singlehandedly destroyed Clemson in the college semi-final, but then separated a shoulder on the first play against Alabama.
  • RB Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma. (Senior). 6’0”, 245 lbs. Stevenson, like A.J. Dillon in the 2020 draft, looks like a poster child for the Steelers’ patented “big man with good feet loses 10-15 pounds and turns into a star” Size, speed, surprising quickness, toughness, excellent hands as a receiver, the ability to block, protection, and the attitude to where a t-shirt under his jersey emblazoned with “I’M BACK” to celebrate his first TD after returning from a 6-game marijuana suspension. Had some fumbling issues in 2019 when he split time with Trey Sermon, but no such problems appeared in 2020 (with Sermon off and looking good at Ohio State). This goes to a long November article from Sports Illustrated on all the adversity Stevenson has faced and overcome.
  • RB Master Teague, Ohio St. (RS Sophomore). 5’11”, 225 lbs. Described as an athletic genius with legendary upside, he’s never quite “arrived.” Sometimes it is the series of nagging injuries. Other times it’s getting outplayed by J.K. Dobbins in 2019 and then Trey Sermon in 2020. Great speed, size, power, explosion, and even shiftiness, but there always seems to be something that holds him back. How much can you bet on pure potential? This goes to a long background piece on Teague’s history of facing and overcoming both injury and life challenges.
  • RB C.J. Verdell, Oregon. (RS Junior). 5’9”, 210 lbs. A lot of people’s sleeper pick, Verdell had a very good 2020 despite everyone knowing he’d be the primary weapon because Oregon has a new QB. Consistent production no matter what is his calling card. Short but not small, he has an angry, downhill running style with very good contact balance, and NFL-good vision and elusiveness in the hole. This goes to an admiring profile from back in November.
  • RB Zamir White, Georgia. (RS Sophomore). 5’11”, 215 lbs. A complete player who’d rank higher if not for an extended injury record that includes ACL tears in two consecutive years. He runs tough, with sharp cuts and nice contact balance, and generally feels like a smaller version of the classic Steeler RB –when he plays. Round 2-3 grade if he clears the team doctors, UDFA if he doesn’t.

The class is weak at the top, and there’s no getting around it. Two really good prospects and that’s it, with zero chance that either will fall all the way down to 2:24. At the same time, there are more than a dozen kids in the “great set of wheels” tier, with a pretty dense cluster following right behind. There will be decent prospects all the way through Round 5 – just not any to view as “special” except insofar as they match your personal preference.

CONCLUSION

This year isn’t likely to end the philosophical argument over the best way to pick a running back, but I think it’s fair to say that those in the “Get One High” school have a stool with only two legs. It’s Etienne, Harris, or Head On Home.

If the Steelers pass on a RB in Round 1, I suspect the next real debate will be over whether to select one in Round 3 or 4. I have my preferences down in that range, make no mistake, but will be the first to admit they come to a question of personal taste. You have your own opinions too, no doubt. Please take a moment to share in the comments.

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