Even Pittsburgh Steelers fans, historically some of the most strident defenders of the merits of running the football and investing in the running game, have slowly changed their views over the course of the past decade on the value of the running back position, and it’s been interesting to see.
The 2021 NFL Draft, however, is shaping up to be an interesting one, wherein we may very well realistically see the Steelers draft a running back in the first round — and it may even be among their better available options at the time. This is not an opinion you will ever sell NFL and draft analyst Warren Sharp on, however.
“Let’s be blunt. No, they should not,” draft a running back, he said on 93.7 The Fan yesterday on the Poni and Mueller Show. “I don’t think very many teams should be taking running backs in the first round of the NFL Draft, because the NFL has changed. It’s not the league that we watched as kids with our dads. It’s a totally different style of football, and running backs have become extremely replaceable. And in a nutshell, I can talk for 30 minutes about it, but the simple answer is, no.”
Yet it’s undeniable that the running game was clearly the Steelers’ weakest link last season. It can be well argued that there is nothing they can do this offseason to better improve their chances of winning in the here and now than investing in the running game — and in the running back position.
James Conner is gone, and what they have left is Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Anthony McFarland, and the recently-signed Kalen Ballage, which does not amount to a very formidable group, admittedly. They undoubtedly need an influx of talent here. But you can also improve the run game by improving the blocking, which the Steelers also must do.
“What our analytics have shown is that running backs are going to see a ceiling of what their offensive line can do, as well as what their play-caller can do in terms of when he chooses to call plays,” Sharp noted. “Does he call plays when there’s too many defenders in the box? How does he figure out ways to use personnel and timing of play calls to get fewer box defenders? That is when run plays are going to see their most upside.”
With Matt Feiler and Maurkice Pouncey gone, and perhaps Alejandro Villanueva gone as well, the Steelers will have no choice but to have change upfront. Some of that in-house change could potentially improve the running game, installing Kevin Dotson and Zach Banner into the starting lineup, who potentially profile as superior run-blockers over their predecessors.
“You do still have to run the football. You can’t throw it as much as you guys were doing last year with as little of success as you were seeing,” Sharp said of the Steelers’ offense. “You do have to balance it a little bit, but at the same time, you don’t want to be going after that running back, because he can only potentially solve one thing, which is when he has an open run lane, what can he do with it? Some guys are a little bit better at elusiveness than others, but he still has to get that open run lane, which means the offensive line has to do their job.”
A very persuasive case can easily be made for the offensive line being the Steelers’ biggest area of need. It certainly would be no surprise to see them draft a lineman in the first round — even in the first two rounds, or at least in two of the first three. But while Sharp, and many others, may be against it, I don’t think anybody would be shocked if Najee Harris or Javonte Williams or Travis Etienne had his name called for the black and gold.