Steelers place emphasis on improving running game in NFL Draft

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Joe Rutter, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·6 min read
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Apr. 18—When assessing the value the Pittsburgh Steelers place in obtaining a running back early in the NFL Draft, it's worth remembering what team president Art Rooney II said on a fan forum last month.

"We don't want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers last in the league in rushing ever again," Rooney II said.

Rooney has made similar proclamations before, such as when the Steelers ranked No. 31 out of 32 teams in 2019. But after he watched the Steelers drop to the bottom by averaging 84.4 yards per game, Rooney and the organization took steps to show they are serious this time about bringing more balance to the offense.

The Steelers will have a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in 2021. They are looking to upgrade at center and left tackle in the draft. And their willingness to let three-year starter James Conner sign a one-year contract with Arizona for just $1.25 million underscores how serious the Steelers are about not maintaining the status quo at the position.

"To put out the kind of running game we did, nobody was good enough," general manager Kevin Colbert said in February. "That's a collective effort."

The only addition in free agency was journeyman back Kalen Ballage, who is joining his fourth team in as many seasons. Benny Snell served as a complementary piece in his first two seasons, and Anthony McFarland did little as a rookie.

All of this points to the Steelers grabbing a running back with the No. 24 overall pick or when their turn arises in the second round, at No. 55 overall.

If recent history is an indication, the Steelers will have a choice of the top running backs when they make their first pick. Last year, the first running back wasn't selected until the final pick of the first round when Clyde Edwards-Helaire went to Kansas City. In 2019, the Oakland Raiders took Josh Jacobs with the No. 24 pick.

Like Jacobs, Najee Harris is the latest big-time back produced by Alabama. He and Clemson's Travis Etienne are considered the top two runners in the class, with North Carolina's Javonte Williams coming in a close third.

Even though all may be available when the Steelers pick in Round 1, they all could be gone before it's their turn in Round 2.

ESPN analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. slotted Harris to the Steelers in the first round in their most recent mock drafts.

"There are plenty of teams in the 20 to 32 range where Harris could go," McShay said on a recent conference call. "He did wonders for his draft stock this year with the way he competed and improved as a runner."

Harris improved from 1,224 yards as a junior to 1,466 and doubled his amount of touchdowns to 26. He also caught 43 passes for 425 yards and four scores.

"He caught the ball a lot better, and he was good in pass protection," McShay said. "The biggest knock on him when I studied him in the summer was that, for a 235-pound back, he didn't run like that. He kind of danced and wanted to bounce things outside. He didn't do that this year. He was a more aggressive, north-south runner. He wanted to get upfield and utilize his size and his strength."

Three inches shorter and 17 pounds lighter than Harris is Etienne, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds after bulking up since the end of the season. After recording consecutive 1,600-yard seasons, Etienne's workload was reduced last year and he finished with 914 yards while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He caught 48 passes for 588 yards and two touchdowns.

Before 2020, Etienne had never averaged fewer than 7 yards a carry in his first three seasons at Clemson. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Etienne's big-play ability puts him at the top of his board.

"It's like the adage in baseball that chicks dig the long ball. That is why I go with Travis Etienne," Jeremiah said. "I like singles and doubles as much as the next guy, but I prefer to have the ball go over the fence. This is what this guy does. He can score from anywhere on the field."

In a previous mock draft, Jeremiah thought North Carolina's Williams would be the perfect fit for the Steelers. The 5-10, 220-pound Williams was a two-year starter, and he rushed for 1,140 yards with 19 touchdowns and averaged 7.3 yards per carry as a junior. He also caught 25 passes for 305 yards and three scores.

"He's a complete back," Jeremiah said. "When you look at the combination of Etienne, who's maybe a little bit undersized but has big-time juice, big-time speed, then you have Najee Harris, who's 230 pounds. He has balance and can bang inside but can also get involved in the pass game. This kid (Williams) kind of gives you a little bit of everything."

TOP FIVE

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson, Sr., 5-10, 215

He set the school rushing record and was named ACC player of the year when he was a sophomore.

2. Najee Harris, Alabama, Sr., 6-1, 232

His 251 carries as a senior were second-most among FBS ball carriers, and he had 718 career touches.

3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina, Jr., 5-10, 212

To show how overrated starts are in college, Williams started just two of 24 games over his final two seasons.

4. Michael Carter, North Carolina, Sr., 5-8, 201

Carter shared backfield duties with Williams, and he led FBS with 7.98 yards per carry in 2020. He also was fourth with 1,245 yards rushing.

5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis, R-So., 5-8, 201

After rushing for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019, Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season because of covid-19 concerns.

Best fit for Steelers, Day 1

Najee Harris, Alabama

If the Steelers wish to use a power running game to wear down defenses and provide some balance for Ben Roethlisberger's passing, Harris is the guy. Harris raved about his meetings with coach Mike Tomlin and Colbert.

Best fit for Steelers, Day 2

Trey Sermon, Ohio State

A 6-foot, 215-pound senior, Sermon could be an intriguing option if the Steelers take an offensive lineman in the first round. A shoulder injury limited Sermon to one carry in the national championship game. In the two previous games, however, he rushed for 193 and 331 yards.

Best fit for Steelers, Day 3

Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma

A 6-foot, 230-pound senior, Stevenson has the frame and skill set to be a short-yardage back. He was suspended for the first five games last season for reportedly failing a drug test, but he still had a team-high 665 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .