The NFL Draft is less than a month away. Our SCB Steelers Draft Previews are rolling along. Check out our breakdowns of the Quarterback and Wide Receiver groups. Today, we stay with the offensive skill positions and look at the running backs. This year’s running back class is deep but there is no top-end talent and it is almost certain that none of them will be taken in the first round. After using a first round pick on Najee Harris last year, they don’t need a top-end starting back. What they do need is someone who can play on third downs and potentially be a serviceable backup if Harris goes down for a game. The Steelers also lack home-run hitting abilities on offense and could look to add more speed to the unit, either at running back or wide receiver through the draft. This means there will be plenty of backs for the Steelers to choose from in the later rounds of the draft.
So far, running backs coach Eddie Faulkner has not been reported as attending any Pro Days. The Steelers did attend the Senior Bowl en masse and saw a number of running back prospects. Additionally, at the Combine they met with BYU’s Tyler Allgeier, South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong, UTSA’s Sincere McCormick, and West Virginia’s Leddie Brown. During his Pro Day tour, Kevin Colbert did see a number of other running backs including Alabama’s Brian Robinson, Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford, Michigan’s Hassan Haskins, North Carolina’s Ty Chandler, Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams, Ole Miss’ Snoop Conner, and the Georgia duo of James Cook and Zamir White.
One of the challenges with evaluating this running back class is that the entire class opted out of running the agility drills at the combine. The fault mostly lies with the NFL in scheduling the 40s to take place in prime time then making the players wait 2 hours and run the 3-cone and shuttle drills after 10pm. Because of this insane scheduling, none of the RBs ran the agility drills so any times available are derived from their Pro Days
What to Like
Looking at the two Georgia backs – Zamir White is an absolute workhorse while James Cook was the change-of-pace back. He is a weight room warrior and tough as nails. He has been incredibly consistent in 3 years at Georgia, averaging right around 5.3 yards per carry in every season while seeing his workload increase dramatically. He pounded in 11 TDs in each of the last two seasons. Interestingly, both Georgia backs ran in the low 4.4s in their 40-yard dashes but White is much more of a power runner while Cook had the higher yards per carry and was used much more in the passing game. Ole Miss’ Snoop Conner is another solid all-around back. Over the last three years he has split the workload in the backfield with Jerrion Ealy and Matt Corral. Due to this, Conner has under 300 carries in his entire collegiate career but flashed a combination of vision and power as well as an ability to find the end zone. Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams did not test well athletically but is a hard-worker who showed an ability to do it all for the Irish. He was hailed for his leadership abilities and is a solid receiver out of the backfield who can be a solid all-around third down back.
Alabama’s Brian Robinson runs like a freight train. He runs with power and can get downhill in a hurry with solid burst and explosiveness. Robinson has the power to bulldoze smaller defenders and good feet to find his way through traffic. Similarly, Michigan’s Hassan Haskins was a physical force, stepping into a starting role and ran for over 1300 yards and 20 TDs. Haskins, like Robinson, is a straight-line runner who wears down defenders. West Virginia’s Leddie Brown also fits the mold of a “three yards and a cloud of dust” running back. His best strength is his legs that are relentless in churning forward for extra yards. Sincere McCormick was the Conference USA Offensive Player of the year after his second straight 1400-yard rushing season. He is a low and powerful runner who plows through contact and keeps his legs churning.
Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford has a very good combination of speed and power. He ran a great 4.46 40-yard dash after leading Cincinnati’s offense with over 1300 rushing yards and 19 TDs. Ty Chandler stepped into the backfield in North Carolina vacated by Javonte Williams and Michael Carter who went in the 2nd and 4th rounds of last year’s draft. Chandler made the most of his opportunity, topping the 1000-yard mark and averaging 6 yards per carry then following it up with a 4.38 40 at the Combine.
Small School Backs
Our favorite small school back is South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong. While he has been the feature back for four years, he ran an insane 4.37 at the combine. That big play ability shows up on tape as he had 10 career touchdowns of longer the 50 yards. Strong is willing to take on blitzing linebackers though needs some work and his agility drills were among the better numbers in this running back class. BYU’s Tyler Allgeier was highly productive the last two seasons in BYU’s zone blocking scheme. He has good vision and is a one-cut runner that can make his move and get upfield.
Areas of Concern
Zamir White has some past injury issues, including two torn ACLs (one in high school and one in college). Additionally, his blocking needs work and he doesn’t offer much as a receiving threat. James Cook, on the other hand, was a receiving threat for Georgia but his blitz pickup abilities definitely need some work. While White is a thumper, Cook wasn’t able to fight through contact as well. Snoop Conner didn’t have the best Combine and was relatively poor in his explosion drills. He tends to run hard and fast from the get-go which can also run him into trouble if the play isn’t blocked as he expects. Kyren Williams is like a bowling ball at 5’9″ 200 lbs and didn’t test well athletically. He won’t be an every-down back but can be a complementary piece.
Brian Robinson did not test well in agility drills and while he has good feet in small spaces he does not change speeds and direction well. Hassan Haskins also didn’t test at the combine but similarly lacks wiggle in his game and generally will get what is blocked for him but doesn’t often create much of his own space. Leddie Brown is not incredibly explosive and had an adequate but not outstanding 40 time. His biggest question mark will be his ball security as he had fumbling issues in college. Despite running for 1400 yards and 15 TDs, Sincere McCormick was somewhat a product of volume and averaged around 5 yards per carry last year. He did not test well athletically and on tape that shows up in how he tries to stutter step and out-maneuver defenders when he just doesn’t have the burst to get away from them.
While Ford is a speedster, his explosiveness and agility drills were less than ideal. He has the sprinter speed, but it is mostly straight-line speed without much wiggle. Ford also had some ball security issues this past season, his only year as a starter. While Ty Chandler flashed this year at North Carolina, his career started at Tennessee and he had over 100 carries each of the last four seasons. The 2021 campaign was the first time he topped 1000 yards.
Small School Backs
Pierre Strong had great testing numbers and looks fast on tape, but as he steps up a level in competition the questions will be there for how well his speed can translate. The NFL game moves faster so his vision will need to improve and he can work on his hands in the receiving game. Tyler Allgeier had some fumbling issues in 2021 and will certainly be seeing a step up in physicality in the NFL. His hands were also questionable in the passing game and he needs to work on his pass protection.
Of the Georgia backs, White is a tough, physical runner but may only be a two-down back in the NFL. James Cook, the younger brother of Dalvin Cook, has the makings of a third down back if he can improve his pass protection. Cook is a one-cut runner who looks faster on tape than White despite both running in the 4.4s. Cook is also a more adept receiver and had a higher per-carry average every year than White. Kyren Williams ran for over 1000 yards and reeled in over 300 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. He is a do-it-all back but doesn’t have the athleticism to be an every-down back in the NFL. That said, he can be a complementary back that can play on third downs as a decent receiving threat and a solid blocker (think “Mewelde Moore”).
Robinson ran for over 1300 yards and 14 TDs this past season but it was largely a result of volume – he had over 300 touches between rushing and receiving, more than tripling his career high. Robinson can be effective as a short-yardage or two-down back. Haskins runs with similar power and physicality but likewise doesn’t seem to have the agility of an all-around back or the comfort in the passing game. Haskins and Leddie Brown are both likely Day 3 backs.
Pierre Strong is our favorite small school back and if we were going to gamble a Day 3 pick on a running back, it would be him. While he has been a four-year starter, Strong topped the 1000-yard mark three times and averaged over 7 yards per carry thrice. Strong capped off his college career with a 1600-yard 18-TD season where he led South Dakota State to the FCS semifinals. Tyler Allegeier drew some comparisons to James Conner, though he will need to work on cleaning up the fumbles to have success at the next level. He is not a burner but has good vision for the field in a zone scheme.
“Not much tread” Club
Given the propensity of Mike Tomlin to “run the wheels off” his starting running backs, something to keep an eye on is players that do not have a lot of “tread on the tires.” James Cook had more than 100 touches only once in his 4-year career at Georgia. Similarly, Snoop Conner at Ole Miss was part of a three-way split of the workload but was still able to be productive, scoring 21 TDs the last two seasons. Conner might be one of the better blocking backs in the draft, but also wasn’t used much as a receiving option. Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford is also a guy who was just a one-year starter and has the size, speed, and physicality to make an impact. Ford is a raw runner and will need to work on his vision at the next level. Other backs that fit in this category include South Carolina’s Quan White who transitioned from linebacker to running back for the Gamecocks last season and was a threat on the ground and through the air.