Should the Steelers Draft a Running Back in the 1st?

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Steelers Draft
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 28: Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) fumbles with ball during the NFL football game between the Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 28, 2019 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Running Back? Offensive Lineman? Who should the Pittsburgh Steelers draft first?

This topic has been all over Steelers media. It’s a good question. The question revolves around which comes first, or who makes who. Is it the running back, or the offensive line, that makes the running game good?

Why can’t it be both?

The Offensive Line surely has more impact on the running game but it’s not by much. You can stick Emmitt Smith behind the line that the Cincinnati Bengals had last year and he might not break a thousand yards. The perception that the running back is wholly dependent on the offensive line is a myth, however. Everyone knows that the New York Giants line has not been good for the last two years. But Saquon Barkley has been a top-five running back behind that line every time he has played a game.

Neither the Offensive Line nor the Running Back makes the run game alone. They both do. They compliment each other, and it’s easy to forget that. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a mock draft that I ran. The purpose was to determine if it’s more realistic for the Steelers to take a running back, or lineman, in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Should the Steelers Draft a Running Back in the 1st?

What the Steelers have in the Room Currently

The Steelers have made some moves in free agency, most recently by signing Kalen Ballage. By no means a starter, Ballage is not even guaranteed a roster slot and will have to fight for his roster spot in camp. Besides Ballage, the Steelers have Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and Anthony McFarland.

Snell is a slightly smaller and slower version of Ballage. I think he will make the team, but probably as the fourth running back on the team. Steelers fans should hope that Samuels is pushed off the team with a new draft pick. Samuels was a receiving-back experiment and it’s time for that experiment to end.

McFarland is an outlier here. While he played poorly most of the 2020 season, he showed some flashes. He was a rookie that did not have the benefit of OTAs, Minicamp, or a preseason. His book isn’t written and he flashed some potential last year. It will be interesting to see what Matt Canada does with him, as Canada coached McFarland in college.

Who Should the Steelers Draft at 24?

I did not run a full mock draft, but you can find one here. In this mock draft, I ran only two rounds. There is no chance for a top-3 running back to slide past the second round, and in these first two rounds is where the Steelers will address the running game needs.

The top three centers that were available were Creed Humphrey, Quinn Meinerz, and Landon Dickerson. The top tackles available were Tevin Jenkins, Samuel Cosmi, and Alex Leatherwood. The top running back was Javonte Williams. Najee Harris went at 18 to the Miami Dolphins and Travis Etienne went at 23 to the New York Jets.

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Why the Steelers Should Draft a Running Back in the First Round

The above example is a great picture of why the Steelers cannot afford to draft a running back in the second round. They simply cannot hope that a running back falls to them at 55. In the mock draft, yes, they could have taken Tevin Jenkins, who was my favorite out of all the tackles available. But there would be no chance for the Steelers to draft a 3-down back at 55 because only one was left.

So, in the mock draft, I chose who the Steelers would have taken if the draft were to pan out this way, Javonte Williams. Coming up at pick 55 let’s take a look at the next possible Steelers draft pick.

The best center available was Landon Dickerson. Josh Myers was also available, but he is more of a third-round player and it would be a reach for the Steelers to draft him here. For reference, Cosmi didn’t make it out of the first round and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Meinerz was taken Los Angles Chargers at 47 overall.

Sitting at 55 the best options at tackle for the Steelers are Liam Eichenberg, Spencer Brown, and Walker Little. Not a bad group, while Eichenberg certainly heads up the group. This draft pick came down to medicals- if Dickerson could be cleared and be ready to go for training camp, then he is the pick. Eichenberg is a good prospect and less of a risk. I think the Steelers would take the risk and draft Dickerson because of his upside, so that is what I did.

The Steelers Must Draft a Running Back in the 1st round, plain and simple

The mock draft I ran was a perfect example of what the Steelers first two draft picks most likely will be; running back and center. The order might not be the same, but there is a very good chance that those are the first two picks as they are also the Steelers two biggest holes on their roster.

The fact that only one running back was available when I picked for the Steelers only strengthens my point.

Perhaps two running backs don’t go before the 24th pick. But even if all three are available when the Steelers draft, a running back should still be the first pick.

Why?

Because this running back class is small, and the tackle/center class is not. This year is an outlier. Normally I would say that the Steelers should wait until round two to draft a running back. But the fact of the matter is this: the Steelers will have no chance to draft a starting running back if they wait until the 55th pick.

It’s either 24, or next year. And if the Steelers want any chance at winning a Super Bowl to close the doors on Ben Roethlisberger‘s career, they have to draft one in the 1st round. The Steelers draft approach should be running back in the 1st or not at all. It’s “running-back-in-the-1st-or-bust” for them.

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