With two weeks remaining until the NFL Draft, we’ll be taking a position-by-position look at the Steelers roster and where the team has the biggest needs. Despite winning the AFC North Crown and finishing an over-ruled catch (that is now a catch) away from being the #1 seed in the AFC, the Steelers have plenty of needs to address on their current roster. While some believe the Steelers need to focus exclusively on defense in the upcoming Draft, the team has generally split their draft picks between offense and defense. The Steelers will have 7 picks in the draft with no picks in the 4th or 6th round but with 2 picks in the 5th and 7th rounds. Today’s preview will cover the running back position, which might be the deepest class of RBs to come out of college in quite some time.
By The Numbers
2017 Rushing Yards: 104.2 yards per game (20th in NFL)
2017 Yards Per Attempt: 3.8 (25th in NFL)
2017 Rushing TDs: 12 (15th in NFL)
Returning Players: Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Roosevelt Nix (FB)
New Arrivals: James Summers
The Departed: Terrell Watson
Draft Need: Medium
The Steelers once again used the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. Last year, Bell was a workhorse back who got his yardage through volume rather than ripping off big gains. He is one of the best receiving backs in the league and is a dual-threat that demands attention everywhere on the field. James Conner’s season ended early with a knee injury and he showed some flashes in the running game but still has work to do on the blocking side and in the receiving game. Stevan Ridley was brought in at the end of the season and played well against the Browns in Week 17 which was enough to get him re-signed for 2018. Fitzgerald Toussaint is still hovering around the back end of the roster while last year’s training camp darling Terrell Watson signed a reserve/futures contract with the Giants this offseason. The draft urgency comes with Le’Veon Bell’s uncertainty. If Bell shows up for Week 1, the Steelers running back depth chart is fine, though drafting a running back would be a good preparatory move for the future (as this will likely be Bell’s last season in Pittsburgh). If Bell opts to sit out the first few weeks of the season (or not show up until Week 10), then the Steelers absolutely need to add to their running back depth chart in the draft in order to have a contingency plan and start to build for life after Bell.
Likelihood of Drafting: High
Given that Bell’s future with the team is uncertain and that the backups behind him are not 3-down players, it would make sense for the Steelers to add running back depth in the 2018 Draft. This is a deep draft at the running back position and teams have been able to land talented backs in the middle rounds of the draft in previous years.
Potential Prospects: Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the top running back prospect (and arguably the top overall prospect) in this draft class. Barkley will be gone in the Top 10 and the Steelers will have no chance of drafting him. LSU’s Derrius Guice (READ: SCB’s Derrius Guice Draft Profile) seems to be the consensus #2 RB in this draft and will likely be a first round pick, coming off the board somewhere between #10 (Oakland) and #32 (Philadelphia). If Guice is still on the board at 28 he is certainly a viable option for the Steelers to consider, which may not be the worst idea in the world. Guice is a potential 3-down back in the NFL and could certainly be a functional replacement for Le’Veon Bell after Bell goes chasing money in free agency.
The second tier of running backs who project as late first round or early second round players are the Georgia duo of Sony Michel (SCB Draft Profile) and Nick Chubb (SCB Draft Profile) and USC’s Ronald Jones II. All three were productive college players who can be capable NFL starters. Whomever does not land Saquon Barkley in the Top 7 picks of the Draft will have a shot to draft one of these 3 at the beginning of the second round. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny led the nation in rushing yards last season and will likely be a Day 2 pick.
The Steelers’ lack of a 4th round pick could cause them to miss the window on a number of mid-round running backs, but some other names to keep an eye on in the middle of the draft are Tennessee’s John Kelly, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Miami’s Mark Walton, and Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage (SCB Draft Profile). That said, with 2 picks in the 5th round that seems like a probable landing spot for the Steelers to take a running back if they don’t select one in the first two days of the Draft.