Training Camp

2021 Steelers Training Camp Grades: Running Backs

For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games.

We’ll continue things with a review of the team’s running backs.

Najee Harris: The shiny new rookie practiced and played about as you’d expect. As Mike Tomin loves to note, Harris has great conditioning, a fundamental factor in order for him to be this team’s bellcow. Harris didn’t miss a game, a practice, or virtually any reps. And the Steelers weren’t shy about giving him the ball, their leading carrier against the Cowboys and far and away their leader in camp practices. Harris had 46 carries, no one else had more than 28.

It wasn’t perfect but he had the effort and competitiveness to impress teammates and coaches. Marcus Allen gave him fits in backs on ‘backers and Jamir Jones once put him squarely on his butt. But Harris didn’t shy away from the challenge and brought a lot of energy to those moments. In team sessions, he showed leg drive, his first carry in a live-tackle session one of his best, a 15-yard gain carrying multiple defenders on his back for the last five. He created when the backup offensive line he ran behind predictably got roughed up by the Steelers’ starting front seven, and he looked comfortable moving around the formation. Just as he did at Alabama.

His numbers don’t look great. A 3.1 YPC, 47.4% catch rate, and tie for the lead in drops with three. Two of those drops came during one less-than-stellar practice. But he performed much better than that data suggests. What the numbers don’t tell you, for example, is his dedication to ball security. Aside from James Pierre punching the ball out at the end of a 7v7 session, Harris didn’t fumble, and worked with RBs Coach Eddie Faulkner every day working on carriage of the football.

Nothing I saw in camp is anything different than what I expected. Harris is the Steelers’ guy. And he should be a good one.

Camp Grade: B+

Kalen Ballage: A solid camp only soured by a lower body injury that caused him to miss about a week and the second preseason game. He showed short-yardage chops that probably got him signed in the first place, pushing the pile forward and finding the end zone during the team’s goal line session. He proved himself to be the best protector in backs on ‘backers, a trait I remember him showing way back at the Senior Bowl when he came out of Arizona State.

As I’ve referred to it, Ballage has a strong backup skillset. Won’t ever be a starting running back but he can do a little bit of everything and do it well-enough. Run, block, catch, and he has special teams value as a wing on punt coverage and upback on the kick return team. He’s more athletic than Snell, showing a quicker burst, and is the better option out of the backfield. He caught all 12 of his targets in camp.

To me, not only should Ballage make the team but he should be the #3 over Snell.

Camp Grade: B

Anthony McFarland: It was nice to get eyes on McFarland this year after barely watching him last season. No camp (for us, anyway), no preseason, and a very limited view in what was a disappointing rookie campaign. That makes it hard to really see how much of a jump he made from year one to year two but it’s fair to assume he’s a lot more comfortable now, no longer the rook who left school a year early. McFarland had the biggest run of camp by a running back, a 40 yard gain finding open grass down the left sideline, and you can certainly feel his burst and explosion, especially in some of the 1v1 tackling/leverage drills.

McFarland’s 5.4 YPC on 25 carries was the best mark on the team. He showed decent hands too, catching 15 of his 17 targets with three touchdowns. Pass pro isn’t his thing and he struggled there. Ball security is also something he needs to work on, an issue on the practice field and in-game. It’s not terrible but there’s the occasional lapse, especially as he’s going to the ground.

Working with old college coach Matt Canada, McFarland was often used in Pony formations, especially early in camp, as a slot-back with Harris in the backfield. The Steelers haven’t shown that in-game yet but they may be hiding it from defenses. With how much they did it, it feels like something they’re going to use once the season starts. That’ll be a way for him to get on the field without taking Harris off the field (though it’ll remove another talented Steelers’ skill player).

Overall, a good camp for McFarland, who should be the #2 back in terms of playing time and carries.

Camp Grade: B

Derek Watt: A nice camp for the Steelers’ fullback who should be used more than last season. Part of that is health-related. His 2020 got off to a bumpy start with offseason surgery, causing him to be limited in camp before a Week 3 hamstring injury resulted in him missing more time. This year, Watt didn’t sit out a single practice and got involved in the offense after a slow start, ripping off a couple nice catches – including a one-handed snag – and some legitimate big plays. As a lead blocker, he performed well.

Watt finished camp with 12 catches for 148 yards. Despite occasionally lining up as a running back in shotgun, he didn’t receive a carry. Let’s keep it that way.

Camp Grade: B-

Trey Edmunds: An actually not-terrible camp for Edmunds, a guy who has hung around for probably longer than anyone expected. Some real Milton from Office Space vibes, the guy they forgot to officially fire years ago and he just sorta keeps showing up.

Edmunds’ value is in his versatility and ability to wear whatever hat the team gives him. He functioned more like an H-Back than actual running back this camp, some sort of poor man’s David Johnson. He was a backup fullback/wing and did a decent job, leaking out into the flat on boots when defenses got bad with their eyes and left him open. That led him to catching all six of his targets for an impressive-looking 80 yards and one touchdown. And he had similar moments in games. Ball security was an issue though, at least one fumble on just seven camp carries.

Edmunds has always had a baseline level of special teams value though he’s never been really good in any one area.

But given all the hats he can wear, I can see him making the practice squad again, doing whatever he has to do for the scout-team offense. God willing, he’ll never see another offensive snap for this team again.

Camp Grade: C+

Tony Brooks-James: The first of two running backs signed in camp, I gotta admit I like his game. He’s not a big guy and doesn’t have great speed (4.49 at his Pro Day, probably really runs in the low-mid 4.5’s) but laterally, he’s very quick. Impressive stop/start and burst. The numbers don’t show it, an ugly 2.7 YPC, brought down by some uneventful runs during the last three days of camp.

Beyond a runner, there isn’t much to talk about. Average receiver, a little bit of kick return value, but nothing that’ll get you out of your seat. Still, his skillset is a little different than the other guys on the team, even compared to McFarland, and TBJ ran well against the Eagles. Then again, everyone did.

Camp Grade: C

Pete Guerriero: The second back Pittsburgh signed after injuries to Snell and Ballage, Guerriero is a track guy who flashed that speed in practice and in-game. He’s small and I don’t know what he offers beyond being fast, like they took a guy running the 400m relay and put a helmet on him, but that speed is fun to watch after all the Steelers’ plodders observed over the past couple years. It’s a nice reminder running backs are, in fact, allowed to run faster than nose tackles. Just ignore his last couple days of practice where he averaged less than one-yard per carry.

In the roster trimming from 90 to 85, Pittsburgh didn’t make a single cut to their RB room despite that group returning to full-health with eight RBs on the team. Ostensibly, that means a guy like Guerriero impressed enough to stick around for at least a couple more days. But even staying on the practice squad will be a tough climb.

Camp Grade: C

Benny Snell: Nearly receives an incomplete here for the chunk of time he missed in the middle of camp due to what I believe was an upper body injury of some sort. Snell had just 13 carries in team sessions though his 4.0 YPC looks decent, partially inflated by one or two solid gainers very late in camp. He doesn’t look much different than before. A big-bodied back with the size and moderate power to move forward and not a whole lot else. To his credit, he’s turned himself into a respectable special teams player, embracing that side of things after being big man on campus at Kentucky. He also caught just two passes, both coming early in camp.

With Kalen Ballage playing well and having a redundant but better skillset, Snell’s roster spot isn’t as safe as it was entering camp. Even if Snell makes the 53, there’s no guarantee he’s going to be active on gameday. Probably don’t need four running backs and a fullback when Harris is going to play 80%+ of the time. If a team wanted to give the Steelers a 6th rounder for Snell, I’d take it. But I don’t expect anyone to come calling offering something like that.

Camp Grade: C-

Jaylen Samuels: Buried on a deep running back depth chart, Samuels quickly became an afterthought and also missed a little bit of time with a minor injury. He had just nine carries this training camp, fewer than the likes of Tony Brooks-James and Pete Guerriero, both signed mid-way through camp. Samuels had as many receptions as carries, nine as well, though had three drops on just 15 targets, once again showing his hands aren’t nearly as good as some make them out to be. He had no big plays in camp, 47 total yards on 18 total touches.

Over the final three public practices, he didn’t carry the football, was targeted twice, and caught just one pass for eight yards. Like McFarland, he was used as the #2 slotback, split out wide while – often – Kalen Ballage was in the backfield.

To his credit, he played well against the Eagles and made our Winners List for putting up solid numbers as a runner and receiver.

As there has always been, he has some versatility. But it doesn’t amount to much value. Difficult to imagine he’ll be on this team in any capacity come Week 1.

Camp Grade: D+

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