2023 Steelers Offseason Positional Evaluations: Running Back

By Jeremy Hritz

The Steelers running game emerged in 2022, though it didn’t achieve its strongest form until the second half of the season. To open the year, Najee Harris recovered from a LisFranc injury that inhibited his effectiveness, and to compound matters, the offensive line struggled to establish any type of consistency. However, as Harris’s health improved, and as the offensive line gelled, the running game of the Pittsburgh Steelers became one of strength and confidence, and there is reason to believe, barring injury, it will be a top 5 attack in 2023.

The Punisher From the Bay

Harris finished his second season with 1000 yards rushing, though he did not match or exceed his 1200 yard total from his rookie year. This can be attributed to his injury, as after he got healthy, he became a physical presence in the rushing attack. His stiff arm is becoming the stuff of legend, and his willingness (and eagerness) to initiate contact, wears defenders down and makes him a legitimate pain in the ass to tackle in the 4th quarter. His longest run this season was 36 yards, only one off from his career long (37), but he was not drafted to be a home-run hitter. What the Steelers have in Harris is a big, bruising runner who harkens back to the ground-and-pound Steelers teams of yesteryear. If he continues to improve and embrace this role, the team’s rushing attack will be a fearsome one in 2023.

Complementing Harris this season was undrafted rookie free agent, Jaylen Warren, a player I was high on from the outset when he was signed following the draft. Warren impressed so much during camp that not only did he make the team, but he established himself as the #2 RB behind Harris, and unseated both Bennie Snell and Anthony McFarland as potential backup runners.

How did Warren respond? With 77 carries for 379 yards, and a 4.9 yard per carry average. His one-cut and go style, combined with a willingness for contact, made him a perfect contrast to Harris, in addition to being a receiving threat. I compared Warren to Mewelde Moore from the 2008 Steelers Super Bowl team, who always seemed to make a play on 3rd down, whether rushing or receiving, and Warren was all of that and more. Warren and Harris together in 2023 make for a complete backfield and one that opponents will assuredly have difficulty stopping.

The Rest of the Runners

Snell filled in admirably in the absence of Harris, and showed he still had something to provide for this team. However, his contract is up, and he will not be re-signed, opening the door for a free agent, or youngster Master Teague, an undrafted rookie who had a nice camp with the team last season. 

McFarland was re-signed to a futures contract and will get an opportunity to compete again this camp. He had a decent showing in his limited action this season, so there is an opportunity for him to stick because of his familiarity and knowledge of the team.

Derek Watt, the team’s fullback, had his best year with the Steelers, converting several 3rd and 4th and shorts. He also made many key contributions on special teams and continued his leadership role as a captain. Watt is a free agent this year, but there is value in bringing him back if he can continue to contribute the type of clutch plays he made in 2022. The team will not overspend on a contract, so there will have to be some compromise on Watt’s part. Should he depart, that would open the door for Connor Heyward to serve in a similar role.

Overall, the running back position is not one of need for the team, so spare yourself the draft study this offseason,. If anything, they will add 1-2 undrafted rookies in camp to compete, maybe a veteran free agent runner, but expect consistency at the position in 2023.

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