Steelers' 90-man roster: RBs

(Another in a series examining the Steelers' 90-man roster as the team heads to training camp to begin the process of cutting down to 53 players in advance of the 2020 regular season.)

ON THE ROSTER NOW: James Conner, Trey Edmunds, Anthony McFarland, Spencer Nigh, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Derek Watt, Ralph Webb, Kerrith Whyte.

ON THE ROSTER IN SEPTEMBER: In seven of the past 10 years – or since former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians called the fullback position null and void – four was the number for Coach Mike Tomlin. Of course, Tomlin since has kept a fullback, but he still has kept only four the past four seasons. He'll definitely have a fullback this year in free agent pickup Watt. So with an apparently deep crop of runners this year, let's bump the prediction for that number up to five. As long as most can contribute on special teams, that's possible.

STAT THAT STANDS OUT: In spite of two novice quarterbacks playing 14.5 of the 16 games last season, the Steelers ran the ball only 42 percent of the time. That was the record low back in 2009 when Troy Polamalu and the defense decried the play-calling that wasn't playing into the hands of their great unit. But 42 percent, of course, has been the norm throughout the past decade of Ben Roethlisberger ball. Again, Roethlisberger was out for the year in 2019, and the Steelers could not roll the run game to complement their outstanding defense. If not the quantity, at least the quality has to change with Roethlisberger returning.

KEY DEPARTURES: The only carries gone from the running back pie last season are the eight by Tony Brooks-James. Tony, we hardly knew ya.

KEY ADDITIONS: The Steelers drafted Maryland speedball McFarland in the fourth round. If you watched Maryland lose in overtime to Ohio State, 52-51, in 2018, you saw McFarland not only rush for 298 yards but make last April's top-of-the-draft defenders Chase Young and Jeff Okudah look amateurish at times.

FIGHT TO THE FINISH: Let's say Tomlin keeps five running backs this season. That could mean a fight to the finish between Samuels and Whyte. Samuels can catch and showed signs of becoming a blocker last season, but he no doubt disappointed even himself by averaging only 2.7 yards per carry, down significantly from the 4.6 of his rookie season. Whyte is a speedball who was picked up during the season. He didn't run instinctively, but did average 5.1 per carry and perhaps a year with the playbook will help advance that number and those instincts.

THE SKINNY: Kevin Colbert seems convinced the injuries to James Conner that ended each of his last two seasons prematurely were NOT a sign of being "injury plagued," but were, as Colbert described, "acute injuries." The GM expects Conner to revert to his Pro Bowl form of 2018, and Conner, to that effect, is in terrific shape. Watt will be the fullback if and when one is used. He'll also lean into the tight end/H-back position, as well as special teams. Those two backs are locks, and unless he falls on his face so is the rookie McFarland. We'll watch with interest to see how last year's fourth-round pick, Snell, grows as a ball carrier. And then there's aforementioned battle between Samuels and Whyte. They have separate and distinct styles but every team has a use for both the savvy pass-catcher (Samuels) and the 4.3 roadrunner (Whyte). Edmunds is the kind of player who fits in well with championship teams. Never count out young players with outstanding character and work ethic such as him.
NEXT: Wide Receivers

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