At least outside of personnel decisions, such as getting T.J. Watt signed to a long-term contract, arguably the number one priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason is working to improve the run game. Logically, one of the chief ways of going about this is addressing the players who are running the ball, and many expect the running back position to be near the top of the team’s wish list for the first round.
While the name of Najee Harris has been the go-to choice as the first running back to go off the board, evaluators are beginning to open up their board and acknowledging that other first-round talents exist, such as Travis Etienne out of Clemson, who will be another realistic option for Pittsburgh at pick number 24 when their turn comes. NFL analyst Bucky Brooks sees the Steelers as one of the best fits for the incoming rookie, writing for the league’s website:
Fixing the running game is the No. 1 priority in Pittsburgh after the Steelers ranked dead last in rushing (84.4 rush yards per game) last season. Etienne would give the Steelers a home-run hitter in the backfield with every-down capabilities. As an explosive runner with the capacity to turn the corner or slash between the tackles, he is a nice complement to their spread passing game. As an effective runner from the shotgun, Etienne’s presence would enable Ben Roethlisberger to continue to play his preferred style (dink-and-dunk passing game from wide-open formations) while adding balance to the Steelers’ offense. With the speedster also showing promise as a pass catcher, particularly in the screen game, the Steelers could remake their offense into a more diverse unit.
The team’s lead runner for the past three seasons has been former third-round selection James Conner, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018 during his first season as a starter. His last two seasons have been hampered some by health concerns, even losing some time due to Covid-19 last year.
He is also an unrestricted free agent, and it is widely anticipated that the team is not even going to attempt to re-sign him. As it stands, they still have Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and last year’s fourth-round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, under contract for the 2021 season, all of whom have experience running their system.
While the Steelers have retained Eddie Faulkner for a third season as running backs coach, they have made changes elsewhere, letting go of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett, and promoting Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm to those roles, respectively.
Change is also coming to the offensive line, with Maurkice Pouncey retiring and Alejandro Villanueva, and possibly Matt Feiler, parting in free agency. Zach Banner is expected to return and Kevin Dotson should step into the starting lineup, while the anticipation is that they could use two early draft picks to address the tackle and center positions, potentially producing two rookie starters.