Is Drafting a Running Back Early out of the Picture for the Steelers?

Donnie Druin

As the entire football world flocks to Indianapolis for the 2020 NFL Combine, general managers from around the league step to the podium to offer insight and updates on the current happenings of their respective franchises. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert spoke to media members on Tuesday in regards to a variety of subjects, ranging from Myles Garrett to Antonio Brown. 

In the midst of the various topics of discussion, Colbert addressed the Steelers' running back position by both complementing Benny Snell, and offering words of encouragement for James Conner. 

"Benny Snell had a nice season for us as a rookie, James had an unfortunate season; and what we tried to emphasize to James was this was this year" Colbert said on Tuesday. "The previous year you (Conner) were one of the best in the league, and we know you're still a young ascending player and we want you to get back to where you were in 2018."

Conner's 2018 campaign put the league on notice, as the Pitt product racked up over 1,400 scrimmage yards while scoring 13 times in the absence of Le'Veon Bell. Bell departed the following off-season as Conner looked to shoulder the load in 2019. 

Yet 2019 proved to be a tough year for Conner, as injuries plagued him and the rest of the offense as well. Only playing in ten games and arriving on a contract year, all eyes containing black and gold lenses are on Conner heading into 2020. 

"The injuries happened, they were acute injuries that weren't avoidable" said Colbert on Conner's struggles last season. "It happened, he has to work through it and we're confident in James because we know what he did in 2018, and we're also hopeful he can find that again in 2020 but in the meantime, competition from Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels should help that process."

It's a tough process fans were forced to sit through last season, as the Steelers' 90.4 rushing yards per game ranked near the bottom of the league, with six different running backs logged carries for the Steelers in 2019 (none playing a full season). 

With major questions surrounding Conner's future in Pittsburgh, did Colbert's comments at the NFL Combine assist in settling those? Is drafting a running back in the second round out of the question for the Steelers? 

The Current Roster

The Steelers top-three players at the running back position are as followed: James Conner, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels. 

Conner, when healthy, is the unquestionable lead-back for the Steelers. However, with 11 games missed due to injury and becoming a regular on the injury report, clouds hover above Conner's 2020 campaign. 

It's an important year for Conner, as he's set to become an unrestricted free agent in the 2021 offseason. The Steelers aren't keen on paying running backs a plethora of money (cc: Le'Veon Bell), but depending on how much Conner is seeking, the team may look to bring him back if this season looks anything like 2018. 

Should Conner be out of the picture for injury or other reasons, Snell is the favorite to take over the leading role in Pittsburgh's backfield. Showing promise from the small opportunities afforded to him last season, a backfield featuring Snell and the pass-catching abilities of Samuels may be a potential option the Steelers are willing to roll with in the future. 

Draft Day Possibilities 

With the team primarily focusing free agency efforts on retaining in-house players, it's assumed that should the Steelers want outside help at the running back position, they'll turn to the 2020 NFL Draft to cover their needs. 

In a few of our recent mock drafts, Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins has gracefully fallen to the Steelers at the 49th overall pick. If not Dobbins, AllSteelers' Senior Writer Noah Strackbein has Utah's Zack Moss being taken in the second round. 

Top names at the running back position include Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor and D'Andre Swift. Will any of the above last to Pittsburgh in the second round? Opinions vary through the draft community. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has all three backs placed inside the top 30 on his big board, while Pro Football Focus has all three ranked outside their top 50. 

Should neither of the three become available, it's hard to envision Pittsburgh selecting a running back with such a high draft pick.


Colbert's Word 

Earlier in the offseason, Colbert stated the team would be open to adding additional help to the running back position. While not directly condescending himself, his recent comments in regards to Conner offer a point of view that Colbert may want to give Conner one more season to prove himself, a gamble that paid off in a similar situation for Bud Dupree last season. 

However, it's clear that if trends continue, Pittsburgh will need to find a fresh face in their running back stable. However with the inclusion of a new running back, it's unlikely Mike Tomlin and the rest of the offensive coaching staff will carry four active running backs (along with a fullback) on game day. If a new face is brought in, somebody will have to be demoted to the practice squad or released. Minimal cap hits for Conner, Samuels and Snell make it a tough decision to allow any of the aforementioned players to walk.

However, the Steelers are also not going to rule out a running back at pick number 49. However, the likelihood of finding a back at good value in the second round remains an uncertainty. Colbert's recent comments indicate he is sold on the current backfield, at least for the immediate future and current price.

Simply put: The Steelers are only going to pull the trigger on a running back early if a major name falls.

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