The Pittsburgh running backs room is in an odd place in many ways. The top is sewn up like the proverbial drum, with Najee Harris a few light years ahead of everyone else. I couldn’t be happier with last year’s Round 1 pick, who has both the size and the talent to play basically every snap the offense will have. The 2022 offense will, for all intents and purposes, run on his broad and capable shoulders. His talents may even make it a successful offense if the O-Line can reach even middle-of-the-road status.
But unlike Mike Tomlin, we fans really do live in our fears a lot of the time, and thus we are bound to ask this question: “OMG, what happens if Najee gets hurt?” RB’s take a huge pounding over the course of a 16-game season, and it’s now that much worse at 17 (plus either three or four playoff games, of course, depending on how we get in). Big backs like Harris take the pounding better, but they take it nevertheless. They also have vulnerable ankles and knees, and we now understand that impacts from just the wrong angle can give anyone a concussion. Thus the RB2 really does matter for those of us who notice the empty part of our glass more than Coach T. So let’s have a look at the current room (all numbers are from the team website).
- RB Najee Harris. 6’1″, 232 lbs. The centerpiece of the Pittsburgh offense for the next several years, bound and certain to bring us glory and success. Amen.
- RB Benny Snell Jr. 5’10”, 224 lbs. I am not a Benny Snell hater, and I’m willing to be a Benny Snell apologist under the right circumstances. Scream all you want, but Benny Snell isn’t all that bad. He has decent size, power, and vision, and by all accounts has matured into being a solid, team-first part of the chemistry. The problem comes from how faint that praise really is. “Not bad,” only gets you so far. Even when you contribute well on special teams. Better would be, well, better. Snell is 2019 draft pick entering the final year of his rookie deal (UFA in 2023). Salary is just under $1 Million.
- Anthony McFarland Jr. 5’8″, 193 lbs. Here’s one for us older folks! “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell…?” The Steelers like their RB’s to be large and powerful enough to pound the ball up between the Tackles. McFarland is the exactly opposite prototype: a dazzling and electric playmaker with fantastic speed, who can break a long run from anywhere on the field as both a runner and receiver. Or so we are given to understand. None of us can say for sure, because he hasn’t stayed healthy enough to get on the field in the first place. Matt Canada used McFarland’s talents to great effect when they were together at Maryland. Can he do the same in Pittsburgh? 24 years old. A 2020 Round 4 draft pick who will be on his rookie deal in both 2022 and 2023. The salary this year is $780,000.
- RB Trey Edmunds. 6’2″, 223 lbs. Take the description of Benny Snell and copy it over verbatim, with the proviso that Edmunds isn’t quite up to the same level of “not bad.” Edmunds is 28 years old, and set to earn $1.035 Million in 2022.
- FB Derek Watt. 6’2″, 234 lbs. Will he ever be used? Who knows? We will have to wait and see what Matt Canada’s offense is going to incorporate. In the meantime he will continue to be a ferocious special teams ace and captain. 30 years old, and scheduled to earn $2.75 Million in 2022, with $1.963 of dead-cap money if he gets cut (prorated bonus).
This one seems pretty obvious to me. The Steelers want to bring in a late-round or UDFA rookie or two who can compete with Snell and Edmunds for the primary backup job. McFarland is probably safe as the change-of-pace speed option, so we are looking for someone who can provide adequate size in the Harris/Snell/Edmunds mold, or some other asset/style that isn’t in the current room.
Pittsburgh’s RB depth pieces are all expected to contribute on special teams too. This is a fairly big requirement since (a) Snell, Edmunds, and even McFarland have excelled in that capacity, and (b) no one has a realistic chance to get any significant number of snaps while Najee Harris is able to walk without a cane.
RB is a big enough want that most of us would be surprised if the team failed to add a body or two to the roster, and no one should be surprised if that happens with one of the Steelers’ three picks in Rounds 6-7. OTOH, I would be personally gobsmacked if they spent a pick in Round 4. There is no Round 5 pick, of course. That was traded away last year for the chance to select DT Isaiahh Loudermilk.
THE DRAFT BOARD
If ever there was a year to say that RB’s are fungible, it is 2022. Yes, I have made a policy decision to say that no RB can have a Steelers-oriented HV grade higher than the beginning of Round 4. But honestly? There aren’t all that many who are likely to go in either Round 2 or 3, and none I’ve seen pegged as a Round 1 possibility. It’s like the QB class – no particular talent at the top, but pretty good depth from the b-level down. I have not discounted the Round 5 and 6 grades except for lack of fit as noted in the text. As you can see, that leaves quite a few names to choose from.
A PAIR OF REQUESTS FROM YOUR HUMBLE AUTHOR
First, and as always, you are actively invited to comment on any of the current grades. I have next to no emotional attachment to any of them. Just keep the Steelers-oriented 4:01 ceiling in mind unless you want to defend why Pittsburgh should make a more significant investment.
Second, please share your personal “pet” targets. It seems like everyone has a few in this class, and that is where I think our discussion ought to focus. Your guy will be added to the Board, so please include a basic description to make my life easier, and please refrain from just listing extra names for the sake of thoroughness. Brevity has the trump card with this position group! I will start things off by listing the prospects who have caught my eye.
For consideration at 6:29 (#208 overall):
- HV 4:01 RB Dameon Pierce, Florida. (Senior). 5’9⅝”, 218 lbs. with 9⅜” hands.
- HV 4:16 RB Zamir White, Georgia. (RS Junior). 5’11¾”, 214 lbs. with 8½” hands.
- HV 5:01 RB Hassan Haskins, Michigan. (Senior). 6’1¾”, 226 lbs.
- HV 5:01 RB Zaquandre “Quan” White, S. Car. (RS Senior). 6’0⅛”, 206 lbs. with 9” hands.
For consideration at 7:04 (#225 overall) and 7:20 (# 241 overall):
- HV 5:16 RB D’Vonte Price, Fla. Int’l. (Senior). 6’1⅜”, 210 lbs. with 9¼” hands.
- HV 6:01 RB/FB Alexander “Zander” Horvath, Purdue. (Senior). 6’2⅛”, 228 lbs. with 32″ arms and smaller 8¾” hands.
- HV 7:01 FB/HB Connor Heyward, Mich. St. (Senior). 5’11”, 239 lbs. with 31⅞” arms and 9¾” hands.
|4:01||RB Breece Hall, Iowa St. (Junior). 5’11¼”, 217 lbs. with 9¾” hands. The descriptions bring me back to Terrell Davis, who made himself a HOF career by landing in the one system that would make perfect use of his skill set. The NFL.com scouting profile prefers a comp to Matt Forte. Hall’s skill set reminds me of Davis’, but Pittsburgh does not run that wide zone, one-cut attack. He might be a useful puzzle piece here, but it isn’t where he belongs. Especially since he isn’t much of a blocker.|
|4:01||RB Dameon Pierce, Florida. (Senior). 5’9⅝”, 218 lbs. with 9⅜” hands. The very model of a Steelers backup RB, Pierce is low, stocky, tough, and runs with good vision. Jonathan Heitritter’s gif-supported Depot scouting profile describes him as a “jack-of-all-trades that will contribute … as a runner, receiver, and pass protector at the next level while not possessing that rare second gear that gets backs drafted early at his size.” He’s also a class act. This is the young man who went up in the stands to thank the marching band at the end of the season. Here is an interview he did with Jonathan Heitritter (the two know each other from college). Lance Zierlein is also a fan. As the NFL.com scouting profile said, “It’s a fun afternoon of tape study watching Pierce play the game like a coiled spring ready to explode on each snap.”|
|4:01||RB Brian Robinson, Jr., Alabama. (RS Senior). 6’1⅝”, 225 lbs. with 9¾” hands. Najee Harris’ backup became this year’s ‘bama bellcow, and did a fine job at it too. He lacks Najee’s over the top burst and brilliance, but he is certainly able to step in and do the complete job required of a backup. Hits the hole like a man’s man, but there isn’t much zag to pair with his initial zig to get going.|
|4:01||RB Kenneth Walker III, Mich. St. (Junior). 5’9¼”, 211 lbs. with 9½” hands. A well rounded back with power, agility, vision, and a violent streak in his running. Smaller than Pittsburgh prefers, but he has that twisting, get every inch style that Pittsburgh really likes.|
|4:16||RB Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M. (Junior). 6’0⅜”, 217 lbs. with 8⅝” hands. A “vision” back who excels at finding the right holes on the inside, hitting them, and then heading downhill. with a surprising amount of burst and shiftiness. Wonderful contact balance. Good blocker. Needs to work on ball security.|
|4:16||RB Zamir White, Georgia. (RS Junior). 5’11¾”, 214 lbs. with 8½” hands. How good did this 5-star athlete have to be if he still profiles as a potential star RB despite having two ACL tears (2017 and 2018), one in each knee? A big time track athlete before those injuries, he’s still known as a physical and elusive power back who can find that extra gear. The TDN scouting profile sees him as an ideal RB2 with upside. And Pittsburgh needs…? Read between the lines of Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile and you’ll see a draft crush on the kid that’s even bigger than his obvious respect for the young man’s game. The final quote is: “Unbelievable worker and he’s going to make your team a tougher team.”|
|5:01||RB Tyrion “Ty” Davis-Price, LSU. (Junior). 6’0⅜”, 211 lbs. with 9¼” hands. An intriguing prospect the NFL.com scouting profile describes as follows: “an enigmatic back featuring urgency, indecisiveness, physicality and finesse on any given carry.” Plays with better agility and suddenness than his testing (still top 20%), the descriptions sound like a player in need of just the right coach and environment. Could be a Day 3 gem if Pittsburgh’s staff could bring out his full potential.|
|5:01||RB Jerome Ford, Cincinnati. (Junior). 5’10¾”, 220 lbs. with small 8⅝” hands. A downhill, bell cow type of back with solid agility and enough speed to beat defenders to the edge or to break off a longer chunk run if he gets free. Decent as a receiver, but not adept as a blocker. Would be a fine backup for Najee Harris if the team goes in that direction.|
|5:01||RB Hassan Haskins, Michigan. (Senior). 6’1¾”, 226 lbs. with 9¼” hands. Probably an upgrade on Benny Snell, but not by a huge amount, and also a very similar player. Alex Kozora’s gif-supported Depot scouting report also likes the comp to Snell, but settles on the Patriots’ Brandon Bolden as a “slightly better athlete with more quickness.”|
|5:01||RB Zaquandre “Quan” White, S. Car. (RS Senior). 6’0⅛”, 206 lbs. with 9” hands. Sleeper alert. I think this might be the perfect type of RB to add into the Steelers room, because he has most of the size they look for, but runs with an entirely different style. White is a springy, creative runner who specializes in making “unpredictable, razor-sharp cuts from any spot on the field,” (Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile), whether it be out in the open or after expertly pressing the line (Matt Waldman’s typically good boiler room report/video). The TDN scouting profile adds that he has “good overall power [and] contact balance” along with receiving skills, vision, and overall athleticism. There are flaws and inconsistencies, and he’s never been the #1 guy, but as a developmental change of pace pick? Sleeper alert on full.|
|5:16||RB Kevin Harris, S. Car. (Junior). 5’9⅞”, 222 lbs. with 9½” hands. A bruising power runner on the inside who will make some team very happy as the “thunder” part of a dual back lineup. Lacks the top end speed and agility to be a true RB1, but he’s definitely the sort of guy that DB’s will dread if he actually gets free. No ball skills to speak of (the NFL.com scouting profile says – wait for it! – “[he] catches the football like it’s made of lava.”|
|5:16||RB D’Vonte Price, Fla. Int’l. (Senior). 6’1⅜”, 210 lbs. with 9¼” hands. One of my favorite Day 3 sleepers until he came into the Senior Bowl almost 30 lbs. lighter than advertised (adding 15 back for the Combine, where he ran a 4.38 dash). Grrr. The size, speed, agility, and other assets are just what you want. The size is not, even though he’s supposed to be good in pass protection. Here is a pre-Senior Bowl scouting profile/interview. The NFL.com scouting profile sees him as a good height/weight/speed prospect with room to develop.|
|5:16||RB Abram Smith, Baylor. (RS Senior). 5’11⅝”, 211 lbs. With small 8¼” hands. Something of a sleeper, Smith is a power oriented back whose best when he can make that one cut and then “play the role of hammer into contact” as the NFL.com scouting profile put it. Not a great fit to Pittsburgh since that describes more of a zone runner, but he does excel on special teams.|
|5:16||RB Pierre Strong Jr., S. Dak. St. (RS Senior). 5’11⅜”, 202 lbs. with 8¾” hands. The NFL.com scouting profile describes a small school version of Tevin Coleman (the actual comp), who has “kill you” speed but rarely gets enough of a hole to hit the jets and use it. When that speed is controlled by disciplined defense, he’s still okay because of excellent vision and spatial awareness, but no more than average. There may be hidden upside that could be tapped by NFL strength training, NFL coaching, or an NFL offensive line that can open actual holes. The last is the least likely, of course.|
|6:01||RB Leddie Brown, W. Va. (Senior). 6’0⅛”, 213 lbs. with 9⅛” hands. Moderate size, but runs with extra violence. A straight line, downhill player who needs the OL to give him a hole, but will hit that hole very hard and break out for big gains after he blasts his way through. Alex Kozora’s gif-supported Depot scouting profile ends with a Round 5 grade for a prospect in the Benny Snell or Jay Ajayi school, plus upside and undashed hopes.|
|6:01||RB James Cook, Georgia. (Senior). 5’11”, 199 lbs. with 9⅜” hands. Dalvin Cook’s little brother has grown into a medium-sized “slasher” back with good vision, good hands, and 4.42 speed, but he might provide much more value to an outside zone team than one like Pittsburgh. Top notch as a receiving weapon out of the backfield. Needs to work on his lower body strength in order to develop contact balance and the ability to bully through between the tackles.|
|6:01||RB/FB Alexander “Zander” Horvath, Purdue. (Senior). 6’2⅛”, 228 lbs. with smaller 8¾” hands and 32” arms. Ding ding! Sleeper alert! Often listed as a fullback because of his size, but he played RB (and apparently LB) at Purdue with good success until he fractured one of the shin bones last fall (fibula). The descriptions and the top 2% athletic profile have a sort of poor man’s Jerome Bettis vibe – the big bruiser with surprisingly nifty feet, excellent explosiveness and 20-yard speed, but discounted because he is a rumbler who never gets any faster after that initial burst. He’s gotten no buzz at all, but sounds like an ideal, power-oriented RB2 for Pittsburgh who could make his bones on special teams too. Here is a brief scouting summary from a Bengals POV.|
|6:01||RB Sincere McCormick, UTSA. (Junior). 5’8⅛”, 205 lbs. with 9⅛” hands. [Mtg. at Combine] A hard running back who gets what is there by twisting, turning, spinning, and squirting through even small holes, but needs his OL to create those holes. Very productive in college. Good in protection and also in space as a receiving option.|
|6:16||RB Keaontay Ingram, USC. (RS Senior). 5’11¾”, 221 lbs. with 9” hands. Went to USC as a 5th year guy, he profiles as a very good top 15% athlete who’s never quite arrived despite all the natural assets. The NFL.com scouting profile notes that he was “quicker and shiftier at a lighter weight” (209 lbs. at Texas). His more recent film is okay, but just okay.|
|6:16||RB Master Teague III, Ohio State. (RS Junior). 5’11¼”, 221 lbs. With 9½” hands. As good an athlete as there is, even for Ohio State (top 2% at RB), people have spent years waiting for him to “arrive” and he simply never has. Some years it was the series of nagging injuries. Other times it’s getting outplayed by J.K. Dobbins in 2019, Trey Sermon in 2020, and Treveyon Henderson in 2021. Great speed, size, power, explosion, and even shiftiness, but there always seems to be something that holds him back. Is it vision? Lack of contact balance? The poor hands? The “tight hips” and “gearing down to change directions” identified in this scouting profile? It always looks like there’s untapped potential about to explode, and then [fizzle]. This goes to a long background piece on Teague’s history of facing and overcoming both injury and life challenges.|
|6:16||RB Kyren Williams, Notre Dame. (RS Sophomore). 5’9¼”, 194 lbs. with 9” hands. A former WR who would make a wonderful 3rd-down back. He and Snell/Ballage, together, would add up close to a single Najee Harris. May be limited to zone runs and pass catching, as he’s the sort who works with vision and burst due in part to his lack of bell cow size. Gets an added discount on this board because I do not believe the Steelers will pick a smaller back while McFarland is still on the roster.|
|7:01||RB Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma. (RS Senior). 5’10⅝”, 209 lbs. with itsy bitsy 7⅝” hands. Described as an ideal RB2 for an outside zone running game, he is discounted here for a severe lack of fit.|
|7:01||FB/HB Connor Heyward, Mich. St. (Senior). 5’11”, 239 lbs. with 31⅞” arms and 9¾” hands. [Mtg. at Senior Bowl, Combine]. Cam’s little brother played RB in college before transitioning to TE, and is likely to end up as a Fullback and special teams ace. Here is an interview he did with Alex Kozora at the Senior Bowl, where he called himself the “annoying little brother.” Alex’s later gif-supported Depot scouting report describes Heyward as a football player caught between positions, who is likely to end up at Fullback because he doesn’t quite fit as a RB or as a TE.|
|7:16||RB Tyler Badie, Missouri. (Senior). 5’8”, 197 lbs. with 9⅛” hands. An electric back in the mold of Anthony McFarland Jr. Likeable enough, but would not add much to the room.|
|7:16||FB John Chenal, Wisconsin. (Senior). 6’2½”, 254 lbs. With short 29½” arms and 9⅝” hands. A Top 7% athlete at the Fullback position, the brother of Wisconsin LB Leo Chenal is a throwback buster-open-of-holes and special teams ace, with enough athletic talent to carry the ball from time to time.|
|7:16||RB Mataeo Durant, Duke. (Senior). 5’11⅜”, 196 lbs. with 9½” hands. A track star turned RB with 4.38 speed and good hands out of the backfield, but lacking anything like the size that Pittsburgh prefers in its backfield. Alex Kozora’s gif-supported Depot scouting report describes him as a one-cut, zone system back.|