New series for the site over the next month. I promise we’re not going all Embrace Debate on you but Jonathan Heitritter and I have teamed up to debate issues we have genuine, good-faith disagreement over Steelers-related topics. Let us know who made the better argument and what side of the debate you come in on in the comments below.
Today’s topic is…
Is There Any Hope Left For RB Anthony McFarland?
Alex – There’s Hope Left
I know things look bleak. But don’t give up on Anthony McFarland. Not yet. It’s been a quiet, difficult, injury-marred first two years for McFarland, there’s no arguing that. Excuses are running old and dry. An underclassman in 2020 during a tough COVID year for players and the league, a MCL injury that derailed his sophomore campaign. Entering 2022, McFarland’s left without any margin for error. But his Steelers’ career isn’t over yet.
Remember, this year is truly the first time OC Matt Canada can run the Steelers’ offense the way he sees fit. Last year was still the Ben Roethlisberger Show, occasionally guest starring Matt Canada. Pittsburgh’s offense was roughly the same as it was in 2020, a shotgun-heavy, quick-passing game that didn’t feature much playaction and not as much motion as is typical when Canada’s calling the shots.
Whether it’s Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett, Canada will put his stamp on this offense. You will see work under center, playaction, pre-snap shifts and motion. All are things that fit better with McFarland’s skillset. Most fans didn’t see it last year but early on in camp, McFarland was heavily involved in two running back Pony packages and the motion-man on jets and fakes. Perhaps the plan was to use more of that during the season until McFarland got hurt and that idea went out the window. They sure weren’t putting Benny Snell or Kalen Ballage in motion.
By the time McFarland was healthy enough to return, the running back pecking order was cemented and the team wasn’t going to create new plays to get McFarland on the field at that point. They had bigger fish to fry.
Of course, McFarland’s role on this team, if there ends up being one, is capped. But this team needs a defined runner as its #2. It doesn’t need another special teamer. They have that in Benny Snell and a half-dozen other guys littering the roster: Derek Watt, Connor Heyward, and the slew of backup linebackers. They need a runner. Someone who brings a different element to the room. The Steelers need big plays and McFarland has the explosiveness to do it. He flashed that last summer with a 40-yard run early on in camp.
With Najee Harris as the #1, McFarland will never be anything more than a backup. But he can offer more for this run game than Snell can. And if Harris goes down for a short time, a half, a week, maybe two, they need someone they can turn to. McFarland is still capable of being that guy and his role can be maximized this summer by Canada, who coached him with success at Maryland.
Jonathan – There’s No Hope Left
I am all about second chances. Heck, I’m will to give third chances as well.
But a phrase I always refer to as a coach to my athletes as was a phrase often used on me by my coaches back during my playing days, “I need you to show me.”
Thus far in his NFL career, Anthony McFarland Jr. has shown us much of anything.
Was I kind of disappointed when the Pittsburgh Steelers selected McFarland 124th overall in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft? Not necessarily, as I recognized the intrigue adding a player of his speed and burst to a running back depth chart that had none of that the past few seasons. However, I was disappointed that they opted to invest yet another middle-round pick at the RB position for the fourth-consecutive season to try and improve the running game rather than drafting a premier talent at the position like J.K. Dobbins or Cam Akers that was still on the board. Instead, they opted to draft McFarland two rounds later and then felt compelled to select Najee Harris in the first round in 2021.
Looking at it in hindsight, Harris was a great pick and has already cemented himself as a great core piece in Pittsburgh for years to come. But that selection likely wouldn’t have occurred if the Steelers didn’t struggle as bad as they did on the ground the year prior. McFarland wasn’t a factor in his rookie season, seeing 89 offensive snaps in 11 games played and recorded 33 carries for 113 yards (3.4 YPC) and six receptions for 54 yards.
Granted, he was just a redshirt sophomore coming out of college, meaning that he still needed some time to likely develop. However, things didn’t improve in 2021 as he was placed on IR prior to the start of the regular season due to a torn MCL he said he suffered initially back in college. McFarland got activated from IR in late October, but due to the injury and missing time due to COVID, he saw action in just two games where he totaled three carries for three yards and one reception for 11 yards.
Injuries will get the best of any player, let alone one fighting for a roster spot like McFarland. However, over the course of two seasons, he has failed to provide Pittsburgh with that spark on offense in the backfield that we saw in college, having the ability to rip off long runs. He hasn’t proven capable to serve as a scat back in Pittsburgh’s offense thus far, showing flashes of pass-catching potential at Maryland, but hasn’t built on that thus far in the league. He also hasn’t made much of an impact on special teams, having only returned three kickoffs for 73 yards (24.3 YPR) last season. Outside of potentially contributing in the return game, McFarland offers virtually nothing on special teams.
For a player that has a very limited role to which he can contribute on the team and has yet to show us he can do that, I am willing to rescind my optimism regarding McFarland and move on. Hopefully he can show that another full offseason and a clean bill of health can make him a more productive player, but for a team like Pittsburgh who needs a capable complement for Najee Harris, I would rather see what UDFAs Mateo Durant or Jaylen Warren can do in preseason action as potential solutions or look to established veterans like Justin Jackson or Devonta Freeman who have shown they can contribute in complementary roles than McFarland who is just fighting to stay in the league.
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