Rookie Impact: Anthony McFarland Brings Big-Play Abilities to Steelers Backfield
Rookie impact is a series previewing each Pittsburgh Steelers draftee and their potential impact for 2020 and beyond. For second-round pick Chase Claypool's potential impact, click here. For third-round pick Alex Highsmith, click here. Today we continue our series with running back Anthony McFarland.
Player: Anthony McFarland
Position: Running Back
Drafted: Round 4, Pick 124
The Pittsburgh Steelers backfield has been nothing short of a hot topic heading into 2020, as lead-back James Conner heads into a pivotal contract year with questions surrounding his health and ability to stay on the field. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was not shy about Pittsburgh addressing the backfield during the offseason, and followed through on his word after drafting Anthony McFarland in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
"Man, his talents speak for themselves" said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on a Instagram live chat with Maryland coach Mike Locksley. "His stop-and-go quickness, his game-breaking ability in terms of his ability to make big plays, we’re excited about. We feel like we got some talent in the backfield, but we feel like he’s got a skill set that’s a little bit different than the guys that we got in our backfield in terms of his speed and open grass ability."
Let's evaluate McFarland's short and long-term impact in Pittsburgh:
As long as James Conner is healthy, he will continue to be the lead back and receive a majority of the touches. If things go to plan for Conner and the rest of the Steelers offense, McFarland's services may not be needed on a frequent basis. However, coach Tomlin was adamant during the same Instagram live chat that McFarland would get his opportunities.
"There’s a natural niche for him there and we’re excited about getting them into the fold and letting him do what he does" said Tomlin.
The speed and big play ability Tomlin gushes over McFarland was once thought to be possessed by running back Jaylen Samuels. Samuels flashed his talents the prior two seasons, yet never fully took advantage of his chances. With Conner as the lead back and Benny Snell playing as the "power back", McFarland is expected to take over the role of Samuels, potentially putting Samuels at risk of being cut prior to the start of the season.
When looking at Samuels' snap counts and touches (rushing attempt or targeted pass), Samuels played 16 snaps per game in 2018 when Conner was fully healthy, as opposed to his 26 snaps per game when Conner struggled staying on the field in 2019. Both seasons, Samuels touched the ball 36% and 32% of snaps respectively.
McFarland's offensive role in 2020 figures to be somewhat limited, yet the Steelers will ensure he factors into the gameplan in some form or fashion. McFarland may be best suited this season as a third down back and a nice change of pace from Conner/Snell depending on the situation. If the coaching staff truly plans to utilize McFarland, look for him to be featured in situations such as screen passes and other creative playcalling to get him in space where he works best.
Not to keep pounding the "James Conner effects everything" drum here, but it's partly true when evaluating McFarland's future in Pittsburgh. Should Conner stay in Pittsburgh for the long haul, there's little reason to believe McFarland develops into a full-time starter.
Should the Steelers waive goodbye to Conner, McFarland looks to provide a viable one-two punch alongside Snell. The splash and speed of McFarland and power/strength of Snell pair well together, and was likely a talking point within the organization when deciding on the pick.
It's likely Snell or McFarland would emerge as a "number one" back in that scenario, with the growth and development of both players playing as variables, although it's doubtful the organization is keen on shoveling 400+ touches on a player as they did with Le'Veon Bell.
Could McFarland emerge as a starting running back in the NFL? Bleacher Report's Matt Miller believes McFarland lacks the ideal size to carry a full workload in the league, but thinks there's "plenty of tread left on the tires" for him to craft and hone his skills.
McFarland projects to be a valuable piece of the backfield in the future, with a knack for making magic happen once in the open field thanks to his speed and acceleration. Whether his role comes in the form as a running back by committee or he emerges as a starter in the future, it's clear the Steelers like what's in McFarland's tool box.