Why the Steelers Must Select a Running Back at Pick 49
After former Pittsburgh Steelers franchise running back Le’Veon Bell elected to sit out Week 1 of the 2018 season, Steelers fans—myself included—shared anguished looks from the Roberto Clemente Bridge and far beyond. Would second-year RB James Conner be ready to carry the rock and supplant Bell, leaving behind his enormous, agile and ever-so-patient shoes?
Conner did just that—and far more. The former Pitt Panther tore up his collegiate stomping grounds, rushing for over 950 yards in just 12 starts as well as accumulating a whopping 12 touchdowns on the ground en route to a Pro Bowl season.
Entering 2019, expectations were, expectedly, sky-high for Conner. A position that once seemed to be a gorge in the roster became as solidified as the city’s iconic Duquesne Incline.
At least, so we thought.
Conner had the epitome of a Jekyll-and-Hyde season a year ago, starting just 10 games and totaling a meager 464 rushing yards.
As Conner enters 2020 on the final year of his rookie deal, General Manager Kevin Colbert has no choice but to prepare for his team’s long-term future and select another tailback with the 49th overall selection—the Steelers’ first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
As I mentioned earlier, Conner had a lackluster 2019, a year that, unfortunately, was tainted by injuries.
Through his NFL career entering Year 3, Conner had experienced a few injuries to keep him from suiting up in Heinz Field and elsewhere. But last year, the injury bug didn’t just harangue or annoy him—it tormented him.
Conner had an illness, a knee injury, ankle issues, an AC joint aggravation, quad issues, and ultimately a thigh ailment that kept him out of the Steelers’ marquee matchup with the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17.
All in all, Conner played in just 4 complete games in 2019, a sobering number that renders his yardage total much better than could be perceived. You could even argue that Conner was only 100% for Pittsburgh’s Week 1 clash in Gillette Stadium against the Patriots.
Even when Conner was somewhat hobbled, he still had several games in which he shined very brightly. He had 119 total yards and 2 total scores against the Los Angeles Chargers during a Week 6 “Sunday Night Football” clash; under the lights of “Monday Night Football” at Heinz Field, Conner proliferated his success with a whopping 145 rushing yards against the Miami Dolphins.
At the same time, Conner faced far more instances when he assumed the role of Mr. Hyde rather than Dr. Jekyll.
Against New England, Conner accrued just 21 rushing yards. Granted, he did face one of the best defenses in the league a season ago, but such game is a microcosm of his entire 2019 woes.
The aforementioned matchup against Miami was the only game last year in which Conner reached the century mark on the ground.
In terms of other runners in 2019, Conner was actually below average.
According to Football Outsiders, Conner ranked 37th in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DVAR) with a value of -13—meaning that he was, essentially, 13 yards below replacement—and slotted in at 38th with a -11.3% Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA).
The runner who was immediately behind him in both categories? None other than Pittsburgh rookie Benny Snell.
Conner’s poor performance was likely due to his inability to stay on the field, a concern that should be at the forefront of the minds of both coach Mike Tomlin and Colbert. But even when—or if—healthy, Conner simply didn’t get close to matching his 2018 success.
Infusion of College Talent
The Steelers already have a solid running back room entering 2020, as Conner will pair with Snell—who showed flashes late in the year of his potential as a starter—and third-year back Jaylen Samuels, whose yards per attempt saw a precipitous decline of 1.9 in 2019.
Why, then, should the Steelers look to add yet another RB to their corps?
The simple answer: the talent of this running back draft class is both electric and very deep.
Most experts don’t expect more than one tailback to be taken in Round 1—some posit that a back may not even be picked until the second round.
The headliners for this group of RB prospects include Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Taylor—my RB1 for the 2020 Draft—totaled a ludicrous 2000 yards two years in a row for the Badgers and was a 2019 First Team All-American. Swift lives up to his name as a very agile, quick back who can make an impact in the passing game. Dobbins is a true home run hitter and plays enormously as the moments grow larger: he totaled 172 rushing yards against Taylor and the Badgers in the 2019 Big Ten Conference Championship as well as 174 yards against the Clemson Tigers in the 2019 College Football Playoff Semifinal. And Edwards-Helaire is a gritty, tenacious runner who is a large reason why Joe Burrow was able to claim the Heisman Trophy in 2019.
The teams most likely to take running backs before the Steelers make their first selection at Pick 49 are the Dolphins—who hold Picks 5, 18, 26 and 39—the Buccaneers—who will take a player at Picks 14 and 45—while the Chiefs (Pick 32) and Texans (Pick 40) may also be in the mix for a RB.
Starting with the Dolphins, they almost definitely will not take a runner before their third selection in 2020, as they have major needs at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and safety. Personally, I think they will take Taylor at Pick 26 to prevent the Wisconsin alum from joining Patrick Mahomes’ already-superb offense.
If Taylor is off the board, the Chiefs could still take a RB at 32, though they are desperate for a cornerback after the departure of Kendall Fuller; they would be smart to nab a tailback with their second pick in the Draft at #63 overall. The Texans, likewise, have much bigger areas of concern than running back, like wide receiver—Pick 40 is their first in the Draft.
On the other hand, I fully expect the Buccaneers to pick a runner at 45. Nascent quarterback Tom Brady needs all the weapons attainable to lead this Bucs team to glory, and second-string RB Peyton Barber left the team via free agency this offseason.
Holistically, I expect around 2 of the 4 runners mentioned earlier to be off the board by the first time Colbert and the Steelers’ front office personnel make a draft decision via their virtual war room—the Steelers should be in prime position to add a supremely talented and youthful RB to a corps that ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ rushing offense DVOA.
Best Player Available? Not so Fast
Rather than add some enticing, fresh legs to their running back room before next year, some pundits postulate that the Steelers should take the best player available with the 49th overall pick.
This idea makes sense in terms of depth; to me, however, the most sagacious option is to grab the player who will have the most immediate impact.
If a transcendent receiver talent like Baylor’s Denzel Mims or TCU’s Jalen Reagor were to slip to the 49th pick, I would, by no means, be agitated if the Steelers took such player.
However, Pittsburgh already has a very crowded—and young—wide receiver room.
Entering his fourth year in the NFL, JuJu Smith-Schuster is just 23 years old and already has a Pro Bowl under his belt. Smith-Schuster was also injured for much of 2019, but I am confident in his ability to return to game action as a #1 receiver in 2020.
Alongside Smith-Schuster are complements James Washington and Diontae Johnson, each of which showed flashes of brilliance with Smith-Schuster sidelined for some of 2019. Washington broke out in 2020 with career highs in receptions (44), yards (735), and touchdowns (3); he has emerged as a solid deep ball threat for the returning Ben Roethlisberger. Likewise, Johnson is also just 23 and posted 680 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdowns as a rookie a season ago.
Factor in Ryan Switzer and Deon Cain, and new receivers coach Ike Hilliard has more than enough solid contributors to work with.
Another idea posed by some is for the Steelers to bolster either their offensive line—by adding either a guard to help replace recent retiree Ramon Foster, or a tackle to help give Alejandro Villanueva some competition, as he struggled with a career high 8 penalties in 2019—or to add an edge rusher like Michigan’s Josh Uche or Utah’s Bradlee Anae.
Again, I’m not opposed to either idea. The Steelers certainly should add to both positions via the Draft, not to mention nabbing a defensive tackle to help provide stability after the departure of Javon Hargrave to Philadelphia. But, fundamentally, adding an awe-inspiring, youthful running back would make more of an immediate impact next year rather than following the “Best Player Available” mantra.
I, as much as anyone, want James Conner to prove the doubters wrong and flourish in 2020. His log-throwing workouts and cancer-defeating will are undoubtedly inspiring, and he has emerged as a true Pittsburgh icon.
Unfortunately, though, the Steelers have to proceed as if his durability will prove questionable once again.
Samuels and Snell proved they were not fully capable of carrying the running back weight a season ago; the only way to prevent future offensive futility is by picking a dynamic rusher with the 49th overall pick on April 24th.