It’s that time of year again. Free agency is creeping up in just a couple of weeks, so before we get there, we’ll get going over the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, position by position, making an assessment of what kind of shape they’re in, trying to figure out how they might, or should, attack the roster on that basis.
The Steelers are likely to be subject to more change than they are used to this year, with more than a dozen players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including numerous starters. Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement looms large over all discussions for the foreseeable future.
Position: Running Back
Total Positional Figure: 5
Najee Harris: Selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, I think Najee Harris’ rookie season can be fairly summed up by pointing out that he was named to the 2021 Pro Bowl as an alternate after the Cincinnati Bengals advanced to the Super Bowl and Joe Mixon was removed from the game’s roster. That is to say, he is on the cusp of being one of the back backs in football. He has a complete skill set with the endurance and work ethic and leadership qualities to build a lasting and significant and impactful NFL career. At least five years of which will take place in Pittsburgh.
Benny Snell: Because of Snell’s heavy workload and endurance, the rest of the Steelers’ running back room was little more than an afterthought, as exemplified by Benny Snell, who had more than 100 carries in each of his first two seasons, but just a few dozen in 2021. He averaged 2.7 yards per carry for his efforts, but he increased his role on special teams, logging more than 300 snaps there.
Kalen Ballage: Ballage was signed as a free agent to a one-year minimum deal and showed enough to earn a roster spot over Jaylen Samuels. He had two or three solid runs within a limited body of work, and should anticipate looking for employment elsewhere in 2022.
Anthony McFarland: A 2020 fourth-round draft pick, McFarland took a significant step backwards last season, and hardly played at all. He did start off the season on the Reserve/Injured List, but he was never able to ‘get on the moving train’, and spent most of the season inactive. It’s fair to say that his roster spot is in extreme jeopardy in 2022.
Trey Edmunds: Still hanging on four years later, Trey Edmunds, the oldest of three brothers, spent most of the 2021 season on the practice squad. He was elevated for two games, playing zero snaps on offense, 18 on special teams. He has played seven offensive snaps over the past two seasons.
Already having their starting running back for the immediate future, the offseason as it concerns the running back position will be dedicated solely toward seeking out quality depth on the cheap. Nobody behind Najee Harris should have any expectations about having a roster spot reserved for them in 2022.
I would imagine that, at some point during the offseason, even if it comes in the late stages, the Steelers will sign a veteran running back who has no expectations of having a regular role. The late rounds of the draft will also be an area at which they will look for help.
But given their cap room, it also would not surprise me if they do try to bring in a more established veteran on a modest multi-year contract, similar to the LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams deals early in Le’Veon Bell’s career. Especially without a franchise quarterback, there will be greater focus on the run game in 2022 than we have seen in Pittsburgh in more than a decade.