When you first think of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a few things come to mind: Tough defense, the team's dominant stretch in the '70s, and Santonio Holmes' catch in Super Bowl 43 are just a few options that may pop up in your head.
Among those options? Running the football, and doing it extremely well.
For those new to waving terrible towels: Yes, once upon a time, Pittsburgh was notorious for being able to run the ball on any defense, at any time. From greats in Franco Harris to Le'Veon Bell and every solid ball-carrier in-between, a key part of Pittsburgh's offensive success has been paved on the ground.
So, seeing the Steelers rank dead last in rushing for the 2020 season at a whopping 84.4 yards averaged per contest is a bit unsettling for any team, especially for a team such as the Steelers.
Fixing the rushing attack is no simple task. A healthy relationship/mesh between running back and offensive line is a must, and quite frankly, the Steelers didn't have any part of that equation figured out last season.
While the offensive line is expected to be overhauled this offseason, the Steelers running back room is expected to see some change as well, as running back James Conner is a free agent and not expected back in the building.
With Benny Snell still in the mold of a bruising power-back and Anthony McFarland still finding his feet as a potential home-run hitting guy in space, the Steelers are again on the prowl for a do-it-all three-down back.
The Steelers are heavily expected to add another running back in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft, and our recent mock draft has them doing exactly that. However, free agency still remains a viable option to add help in resurrecting their rushing attack, especially if the team wants to add a veteran presence to the group.
Should the Steelers opt for free agent help, a plethora of options exist for Pittsburgh:
If the Steelers don't mind breaking the bank for running backs, a couple top-tier options exist for Pittsburgh:
Aaron Jones- Jones is set to become the next handsomely paid running back in free agency, as his impact in Green Bay last season set him up for a solid payday in the offseason. Some believe the Steelers could be in line to pay Jones, and while the price tag will be much higher than the $2 million dollars he made last season, Jones may just be the best elixir for Pittsburgh's ground game.
Kenyan Drake- After making nearly $8.5 million last year, Drake came through with nearly 1,000 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns for the Cardinals in 2020. While that production is nice on paper, Drake's price tag will have to be lowered in order for the Steelers to bring him in. The talent, however, is there for Drake to lead the Steelers' backfield, yet it feels as if Drake has to have strong offensive line play in order to be effective.
With the Steelers' offense evolving thanks to Matt Canada's promotion to offensive coordinator, it's likely the Steelers will need a strong pass-catching running back. Here are a few options that specialize in doing just that:
James White- Few running backs in the league catch the ball at a higher rate than the long-time Patriot, who's caught over 200 passes in his last three years. White's 2020 AAV sat at $4 million dollars, right on the money for the average salary of a running back. Although White has always been a part of New England's running back carousal, his talents would be well-received in Pittsburgh.
Mike Davis- While Davis is capable of also rushing effectively, his pass-catching prowess was on display when Christian McCaffrey struggled with injuries last season. Davis caught nearly 60 passes/2 touchdowns in 12 games starting, while also adding six scores rushing as well. Davis should stay around his $3 million dollar cap hit this offseason, if not climbing a bit higher due to his performance.
Restricted Free Agent Options
Restricted free agency can be a tricky road to navigate, especially when trying to claim a running back. Below is NFL.com's description of an RFA:
"A player with three accrued seasons and an expired contract. RFAs are free to negotiate and sign with any team, but their original team can offer them one of various qualifying offers ("tenders") that come with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation. If the tender is withdrawn by a team, the RFA becomes an unrestricted free agent."
With that being said, only nine running backs are set to become restricted free agents, and only one caught my eye for Pittsburgh:
Gus Edwards- Only Lamar Jackson gained more first downs than Gus Edwards did for the Ravens, despite Edwards ranking third on the team in rushing yards. Edwards, despite averaging five yards per carry and six touchdowns last season, was forced to take a step back thanks to the play of J.K. Dobbins. Edwards runs the ball extremely well and would provide Pittsburgh with an excellent fit.
Not to discount any of the below players, but their price tags should be relatively cheaper than their free agent counterparts. Despite the low cost, they could also provide the most value and bang for Pittsburgh's buck:
Marlon Mack- Mack was set to have a solid 2020 before heading to injured reserve, performing well in 2019 and was well on his way to becoming one of the hotter names entering the market before injuring his Achilles. Even if it's on a one-year deal to prove he's healthy again, the Steelers would benefit greatly from Mack's presence.
Jamaal Williams- Should the Steelers not be able to sign Aaron Jones, his counterpart in Jamaal Williams would do just fine as well. Williams proved himself to be a strong presence in Green Bay apart from playing second-fiddle to Jones. Can Williams be a strong lead back on his own? Some believe so, and Pittsburgh could find out for cheap.
We've gone through a few different categories of potential running backs. Here are a few other names to keep an eye on - Chris Carson, Jerick McKinnon, D'Onta Foreman, Matt Breida and Wayne Gallman.