The Pittsburgh Steelers intend to overhaul their running game this offseason, which entails many phases. Changes were made to the coaching staff, with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett not retained, replaced by the promoted Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm, who bring a different philosophy to the table.
There will be different linemen this year, as well, including Kevin Dotson entering the starting lineup, and likely seeing the team draft two in the coming weeks. And of course, changes in personnel at running back are coming, with James Conner now gone.
The Steelers brought in Kalen Ballage via free agency, but the big addition will come via the draft. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, this will come “most likely in the first round, no later than the second.”
While he doesn’t specifically say that this is information fed to him by team sources, I think it’s pretty likely to be true one way or another. The Steelers have expressed interest in each of the draft’s top three backs — Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams. At least one of them figures to be available when they select at 24, if not all of them. Though the prospect of one falling to them in the second round is… optimistic.
The team has taken a running back in each of the past four drafts, starting with Conner as a third-round compensatory draft pick in 2017. But he is the highest selection at the position in some time, with Jaylen Samuels being a fifth-round selection a year later, and followed by two fourth round picks in successive years in Benny Snell and, most recently, Anthony McFarland.
The selection of Conner marked the end of a three-year dry spell in which the Steelers failed to draft any true running backs, the lone caveat being Dri Archer in 2014. The year before that, they drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round, who would emerge as a multiple-time first team All-Pro and a rather unremarkable rapper.
There are those who are philosophically opposed to using a first round pick on a running back, or even a high pick in general. I generally lean against using first-round selections on the position, but I believe there are some scenarios in which exceptions are reasonable.
I also believe the Steelers are facing one of those exceptions. They are marking a period of transition at quarterback, and assuming they have one last shot at a Super Bowl. There is nothing that they can do to improve their chances of winning in 2021 more than by adding the best talent they can to the backfield.
And he will still be there when the next quarterback takes over, perhaps a year from now. Perhaps two, perhaps three. He may only be here for five or six years, and perhaps even flame out by that point. You generally want your first-rounders to be with you for a good decade. But if every team re-signed every one of their first-round picks, frankly, they wouldn’t have any cap space, and a dozen guys making all the money.