It’s that time of year again. Free agency is creeping up in just a couple of weeks, so before we get there, we’ll get going over the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, position by position, making an assessment of what kind of shape they’re in, trying to figure out how they might, or should, attack the roster on that basis.
The Steelers are likely to be subject to more change than they are used to this year, with 19 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including numerous starters. Two other important players have retired, so there is more shuffling of the deck than normal in Pittsburgh.
Position: Running Back
Total Positional Figure: 6
James Conner: James Conner’s career didn’t quite take off like many hoped it would following his Pro Bowl season of 2018, but the problem was rarely his performance so much as his availability. That was again the case this past season, missing three games and parts of others due to injury and to Covid-19. When he was on the field, however, he was their only source of rushing, gaining 721 yards on 169 attempts with six touchdowns. Now he is due to be a free agent, and is unlikely to be re-signed.
Benny Snell: Now entering his third year, Benny Snell might have to shoulder the load for the running game, depending on what they can do in free agency and the draft. Last season was frustrating, as he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and lacked the explosive runs he flashed as a rookie, which just three in 2020 and none longer than 30 yards.
Anthony McFarland: After an uninspiring rookie season, the Steelers anticipate significant growth from McFarland in year two, in which they expect him to have a better handle on himself and how to utilize his speed on the field. He should be a change of pace back at the least.
Jaylen Samuels: With his role falling each year, it’s easy to see the clock ticking for Jaylen Samuels, who may not even make the 53-man roster this year. While they like him in certain roles, if they draft another running back, it will be a tough squeeze.
Derek Watt: The fullback they paid a lot of money for last year, Derek Watt missed four games with no touches and performed below average as a blocker, arguably average as a special teamer, which was their primary interest in him. He would probably be under greater threat of being a cap casualty if cutting him would save them more.
Trey Edmunds: Trey Edmunds has held on for dear life for three seasons now, bouncing back and forth from the practice squad, but there is an end of the road somewhere. There is no one thing that he does particularly well, and even his special teams play leaves something to be desired.
It’s a foregone conclusion that James Conner will not be re-signed and remain in Pittsburgh at this point. Given their salary cap limitations, it’s unlikely that they pursue any name running back on the open market at all. It is a possibility that they might look into acquiring some affordable, perhaps aging veteran who could come in and compete for some snaps.
Their focus instead will be on the draft, where they should be expected to draft a running back for the fifth year in a row. This time, however, it could come as early as round one. Many mocks have Alabama’s Najee Harris falling to them at 24, and few have them passing him up.
Travis Etienne is another first-round option, but there are a number of legitimate possibilities in the first few rounds for running backs who could potentially come in and start right away, as Le’Veon Bell did back in 2013.