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: Running back Anthony McFarland will produce 500 or more yards from scrimmage in Matt Canada’s offense in 2021.
Explanation: A fourth-round pick out of Maryland, McFarland only played 89 snaps last season out of the team’s four running backs. He recorded 39 total touches on the season for 167 yards from scrimmage, including 33 rushes for 113 yards and six receptions for 54 yards. The Steelers’ new offensive coordinator this season, Matt Canada, was McFarland’s college coach in 2018, of whom he is extremely fond, and under whom he had his best season.
Even with running backs, we should know better by now than to judge players much based on their rookie seasons. McFarland very much looked like a rookie in 2020, and that’s not surprising. He didn’t even have much college experience, with two years of play and about 250 snaps. Then he came into the league during a pandemic with a virtual offseason and no preseason. It’s no wonder he had happy feet whenever he got the ball.
But he still flashed the sort of speed and elusiveness that he could offer with the ball in his hands and in space. Canada has already shown that he knows how to use McFarland effectively, and is known to be a creative playcaller. We probably won’t see him running up the middle a bunch like he seemingly did last year.
With no James Conner, there is a huge opening for playing time, even assuming a rookie is drafted high and comes in to start. Getting 100 total touches is a very reasonable estimate, say 70 rushes and 30 receptions, with which 500 yards from scrimmage is very realistic. At four yards per rush, he would have to average 7.3 yards per catch.
The Steelers have not had multiple running backs produce 500 yards from scrimmage in a single season since 2015, the year Le’Veon Bell tore his ACL after six games and left DeAngelo Williams to start 10. Williams produced nearly 1,300 yards that year, Bell with nearly 700 in just five-plus contests.
It’s a given that Pittsburgh is going to draft a starting running back later this month. The last time they did that was with Bell in 2013. Even after missing the first three games, he produced 1,259 yards from scrimmage. Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones combined barely managed 500 yards from scrimmage.
McFarland is an interesting talent and the Canada connection is intriguing, but he’s thoroughly unproven and untested, without the established resume of a receiving back. And if the back they draft has speed, there goes his best card to play.