“On The Bubble” Series: Running Backs

New series here at Steelers Depot as we dive into the roster position-by-position and look at who may be sitting on the “roster bubble” heading into training camp after the conclusion of free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft.  To kickstart the series, we will be looking at the running back room.

The Names To Know:

Benny Snell Jr. (age 24)

Snell being listed here should come with an asterisk as I would expect him to make the roster unless Pittsburgh was to add an outside free agent that can bring more to the table as a #2 runner behind workhorse back Najee Harris. Should Pittsburgh decide not to opt for the veteran free agent, Snell likely should be safe as a “capable backup runner and special teamer” as phrased by HC Mike Tomlin during a pre-draft press conference when asked about the RB room behind Harris.

When you look at it from that perspective, Snell has been “capable” as Tomlin suggests. In three seasons, Snell has received 255 carries for 892 yards (3.5 YPC) and six TD along with 15 receptions for 97 yards. These are modest numbers at best, which depicts Snell and his rather plodding, bruiser running style as a bigger power back in-between the tackles. Still, he has been available when called upon and has developed into a quality special teams player, having logged 707 special teams snaps since entering the league according to Pro Football Reference including 326 snaps in 2021.

This obviously helps Snell’s chances of sticking on the roster, but to conclude his statements commending Snell’s availability, Tomlin did say in the same presser, “They’ll define their roles with how they perform. Obviously how they perform against competition that’s here and maybe competition that is not here.” This could leave the door open for open of the recently signed UDFAs as well as potentially Connor Heyward or an outside FA addition to battle with Snell for backup RB duties. Should someone prove to be a more capable runner and supplant Snell’s value on special teams, I don’t think anyone would be shocked if Snell was left off the roster heading into the 2022 season.

Anthony McFarland Jr. (age 24)

The other name Tomlin referenced in the same quotes during the press conference is third-year RB Anthony McFarland Jr. out of Maryland. A former fourth-round selection, McFarland was supposed to provide Pittsburgh that dimension in the backfield it had been missing, being a smaller, shiftier back than the standard power back Pittsburgh has on the roster, possessing home-run speed and explosiveness to add a spark to the running game. Still, injuries and lack of contribution on special teams has left McFarland with minimal impact thus far in the league, totaling 116 yards rushing on 36 attempts (3.2 YPC) and seven receptions for 65 yards and only eight special teams snaps in two seasons.

Tomlin reiterated the same thoughts in his presser, saying “McFarland less so. Less availability there,” in terms of being a runner and special teams contributor. When referencing the other quote by Tomlin above where the team will see how both McFarland and Snell do against competition, it’s not hard to think that McFarland’s time in Pittsburgh may not be long should he not show something in training camp or during the preseason. He doesn’t bring virtually any special teams value, and if he can’t rip off big explosive plays like he was drafted to do in 2020, there isn’t much reason to keep him on the roster.

Trey Edmunds (age 27)

Trey Edmunds finds himself in the mix as a viable special teams contributor that ST Coach Danny Smith loves to keep around as well as a great locker room guy that also happens to be the brother of Steelers starting SS Terrell Edmunds. Trey has found himself bouncing on-and-off the Steelers practice squad and 53-man roster the last couple of seasons, often being one of their protected members to avoid being poached by another team that may have interest. When it comes to being a rusher, Edmunds brings little to the table having 31 career carries for 140 yards (4.5 YPC) and one TD since 2017 which includes two long runs of 45 and 41 yards.

Still, as mentioned earlier, Edmunds’ value mainly comes as a special teams contributor, having played nearly 300 ST snaps since arriving in Pittsburgh. Still with only 26 snaps played in 2020 and 18 in 2021 according to Pro Football Reference, his role in this area of the game has greatly decreased in recent seasons, giving him little value to remain on the roster in-place of a more capable runner and similar special teams contributor. Pittsburgh may elect to keep him on the practice squad due to family ties and overall familiarity, but a roster spot for Edmunds shouldn’t likely be expected.

Mataeo Durant (age 22)

At the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed UDFA RB Mataeo Durant out of Duke. A smaller, svelte runner standing 5’11 3/8”, 196lb, Durant carried the load for the Blue Devils offense in 2021, toting the rock 255 times for 1,241 yards (4.9 YPC) and nine TDs along with 27 receptions for 256 yards and two scores. He brings a career 5.2 YPC average to the table and has showcased the ability to be a viable pass catcher as well as a wiling pass protector. What sticks out from Durant’s game is his speed and vision, having the ability to make one cut and rip off long runs with his 4.38 40 timed during his Pro Day workout.

Built in a similar mold to that of Phillip Lindsay or Nyhein Hines, Durant could be that type of chance-of-pace/scat back that Pittsburgh has been searching for and tried to add with the selection of McFarland a couple seasons ago. Durant may not provide much as a runner in-between the tackles, but as Alex Kozora points out in his UDFA profile, Durant has experience covering kicks to contribute on special teams and provides a versatile skill set as a one-cut speed runner and capable pass catcher that Pittsburgh needs to inject into its backfield. Should he prove capable of playing special teams during the preseason and make a couple of plays, he may find himself unseating one of the names listed above.

Jaylen Warren (age 23)

Pittsburgh also added UDFA RB Jaylen Warren out of Oklahoma State along with Durant after the draft ended. Unlike Durant, Warren better matches a prototypical Pittsburgh running back. Built with a squatty frame at 5’8, 207lb, Warren is a dense runner with a low center of gravity that does a great job running downhill and through arm tackles, picking up additional yardage as he bounces off defenders. Warren also possesses decent acceleration when he hits the hole, having the ability to make one cut behind the LOS or in the second level to get into space and accelerate forward.

In his lone season at Oklahoma State, Warren was elected a team captain and started in 12 of 14 games, carrying the ball 256 times for 1,216 yards (4.8 YPC) and 11 TDs while catching 25 passes for 225 yards. While Warren may lack elite long speed and doesn’t have the greatest vision as a runner, he showcased the ability to carry the load for the Pokes when called upon. While possible upside as a pass catcher, it likely will come down to whether Warren will be able to contribute on special teams units during the preseason if he has a chance to make the roster. Given his play style and potential role, it’s not unthinkable to imagine Warren beating out on of the incumbents.

What are your thoughts on the names listed “on the bubble” at the RB position? Who do you think is safe and who do you think is in danger of losing their roster spot during training camp and the preseason? How do you see this position group shaking out come the regular season as it stands today/ Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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