2022 Steelers Positional Evaluations: Running Back – A Stable Position, But in Need of a True 3rd Down Back

By Jeremy Hritz

The running back position for the Pittsburgh Steelers is one we should all be optimistic about because of Najee Harris. As a rookie behind a horrible/putrid/awful offensive line, Harris not only broke the Steelers rookie rushing record held by legend Franco Harris, he also broke the rookie reception record for the team. Many will argue that there is no comparison between what Najee and Franco’s rookie seasons, but I’d argue differently, as he broke the record behind a horrible offensive line. The ineffectiveness of the OL routinely allowed Harris to be met directly with contact immediately upon getting the handoff. Couple that with questionable usage of Harris as a result of the play calling of Matt Canada, and Harris’s performance in 2022 will be underrated, if one does not carefully examine all of the extenuating factors.

What is truly exciting is the future of Harris and what he can do a) with a quality offensive line in front of him and b) with a full year of NFL experience at his disposal. Harris has only begun to scratch the surface of his talents, and we saw brief glimpses of the type of player he can become. Harris alone gives this offense a chance to be competitive, and if the Steelers attack rebuilding the offensive line as a priority, this team can establish themselves as a top-10 rushing unit. Whether this becomes a reality remains to be seen, as the rushing game was made a priority last season, but the offensive line was neglected. Regardless, running back isn’t a position of need in free agency or the draft, though a compact, speedy yet powerful 3rd down runner would be a welcomed complement to Harris’s game. More on that in a bit. 

Bennie Snell

Bennie Snell finished the season with 36 carries for 98 yards, a 2.7 yard per carry average, and a long run of 9. He chipped in 2 catches for 4 yards. In totality, these statistics are forgettable, but again, this is behind an inept offensive line. His season began with a bit of mystery, as he missed a fair amount of training camp and preseason games due to an undisclosed injury. His style is physical, not flashy, but he truly lacks NFL-caliber speed, something that has hindered his career in Pittsburgh. He will be a $1.1 million dollar cap hit in 2022, and there could be a chance he is cut. While they may want to see what he can do behind a quality offensive line, the organization may have soured on Bennie Snell football. If he does return, he will be nothing more than an average number 2 or 3 runner. The team could look to upgrade the depth at RB, but I’m not convinced they would do so through the draft, and free agency would be the more likely spot.

Kalen Ballage

Kalen Ballage had 12 carries for 36 yards, a stat line that for me is well below what I had anticipated after his decent performance in the preseason. I believed that Ballage would have picked up more carries, but for whatever reason, Snell was their go-to. He is an unrestricted free agent, and it is unlikely, though not completely impossible, that he returns to the team. 

Anthony McFarland, Jr.

If there was a player who disappointed with not only his play, but also his availability, it was Anthony McFarland. With 3 carries for on 3 yards, McFarland showed nothing to validate that he could be a contributing running back in the NFL, even while being reunited with his former college offensive coordinator. McFarland has proven to be more Dri Archer than Darren Sproles. While McFarland has speed, he is not a natural runner, and his movements and running style are awkward and easily thwarted by defenses. Beneficially for McFarland, he will only be in his third year, so he will still be given an opportunity to prove his value; however, if he is flat in camp and during the preseason, he could be expendable.

Derek Watt

1 carry, 1 yard. 3 receptions, 15 yards. A cap hit of 4.7 million dollars. It makes no sense. It doesn’t seem likely the Steelers would keep a player just because of his familial connection to his brother, but it is difficult to understand the justification for keeping Watt, outside of his value on special teams. If they are going to pay him as much, employ him in the game plan, otherwise, this is a frivolous usage of precious cap dollars. While I would cut Watt this offseason, he will more than likely return, be used sparingly, once again raising questions as to his purpose and value to the team. 

The Draft and Free Agency

I don’t believe the Steelers will invest a draft pick in a running back, unless there is someone available in round 6 or 7 that they really like. As Dave Bryan of The Steelers Depot always points out, the running back position in the NFL is fungible, and oftentimes, talent is able to be found through undrafted rookie free agents, where this team could look to add some depth. They could also examine the available veteran free agents to determine whether or not any of them fit the mold of what they are looking for, though it would have to be financially palatable. 

What the Steelers need to find is the type of runner they hoped to get in McFarland, a fast, powerful stocky third-down back who can both catch and run and provide a different element from what Harris offers. They will still give McFarland a chance to develop into such a role, but I don’t see it working out for him. As a result, the team will scour free agency and undrafted rookies who fit the aforementioned mold and firing up a training camp competition to see who can be that type of runner. More than likely we are looking at Harris, Snell, and either McFarland or a diamond in the rough they are struggling to find. 

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