Clemson's Travis Etienne may have been on a select few teams' first-round radars, but as it tends to do, NFL free agency has changed the NFL Draft landscape.
James Connor's free agency departure to the Arizona Cardinals may have changed the status quo of running backs being selected in the top 32, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have an immediate chance to replace, and potentially surpass, Connor's 2020 production with their first draft selection.
Pittsburgh doesn't face too much resistance of another team selecting Etienne until the Buffalo Bills are on the clock at No. 30, a selection trendy for mock drafts wanting a running back to go in the first round. Currently at pick No. 24, the Steelers could change this trend, and the perfect trade partner to land Etienne lies ahead of the Bills with the Green Bay Packers at No. 29.
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has had movement in the first round each of the past three years. He could move once again if a name like Rashod Bateman of Minnesota or Notre Dame's Butkus Award-Winning Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah falls.
Pittsburgh could move back five selections and not sweat Green Bay, Cleveland, Baltimore, or New Orleans from taking Etienne. Both Green Bay and Baltimore drafted running backs early last year. Cleveland offers a duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and New Orleans still boasts Alvin Kamara, a common comparison to the former Clemson star. The Steelers could also grab an extra second or third-rounder in this trade to alleviate offensive line concerns in a deep tackle draft.
This trade scenario could spark unprecedented back-to-back running back selections in the first round if the Bills want to give quarterback Josh Allen a ball carrier, and Alabama's Najee Harris could be gone to Buffalo after Etienne goes at No. 29 in this hypothetical. Harris may even cross Pittsburgh's mind, but the body of work and the noticeable year-to-year improvement Etienne has made since his start with Clemson are challenging to ignore.
Etienne didn't finish with a third straight 1,000-yard outing as he probably had hoped, but with fewer games under his belt, this can't be a concern. Etienne still found a way to break his own record in receiving totals, finishing his senior year shy of 600 yards through the air and will be the total package for any NFL offense.
With no need outside after wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster's return, the Steelers offer a lethal receiving corps but don't have many backfield options with Connor gone. Protecting Big Ben in what some might call a 'prove it' year will be critical, but Roethlisberger's production will dip even further in his 18th season without a reliable option to his right. Etienne automatically gives backfield versatility they've lacked since Leveon Bell's departure in 2019 after sitting out all of the 2018 season over contract disputes.
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert could solve two of his team's issues with relative ease. A few extra picks for offensive linemen from this hypothetical trade down, while also capturing who many would label the best all-around running back option on the draft board, would have to be seen as a massive win after a disappointing finish to the 2020 NFL season in Pittsburgh.
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