Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.
RUNNING BACKS (8)
James Conner, Trey Edmunds, Darrin Hall, Rosie Nix, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Ralph Webb, Kerrith Whyte
(Free Agent Scorecard: none)
A LAST LOOK AT 2019
One calendar year ago, there was little doubt surrounding this position or the players doing the heavy lifting within it, but today there is near unanimity that improving it is an offseason priority. And the reason for the change in opinion has everything to do with the 2019 season.
At the end of the 2018 regular season, Ben Roethlisberger had over 5,000 yards passing, and the Steelers finished 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game, but that was seen largely as a result of play-calling preference rather than an inability to execute a competent running game. That was because in his first year as a full-time NFL starter, second-year pro James Conner gained 973 yards on a 4.5 average and scored 12 rushing touchdowns to go along with 55 catches for another 497 yards and another touchdown. Conner was the man with the football on 71.4 percent of the Steelers' designed running plays over the course of the regular season, and he was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
Today, there doesn't seem to be anything about the state of the team's running attack, nor the backs charged with making it go, that could be described as comforting.
The Steelers ended the 2019 season ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and before anyone might want to view that as some kind of real improvement, they actually rushed for 2 more yards than they did in 2018, and their average per carry dropped from 4.2 to 3.7. Conner, who missed three full games and parts of a fourth due to injury in 2018, missed six full games in 2019; the Steelers didn't have an individual rush for even 500 yards on the season; and their seven rushing touchdowns as a team were the fewest in a 16-game season in franchise history. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, the Steelers finished with seven rushing touchdowns in what was a nine-game season; and in 1968 they had seven rushing touchdowns in what was a 14-game season.
Ben Roethlisberger's injury allowed opposing defenses to cram the box and focus on stopping the run, and the inexperience at wide receiver plus injuries/inexperience at tight end all contributed to making things extra difficult for the running backs. But there can be little argument that the running attack underachieved last season.
As Steelers President Art Rooney II said when asked what he believes has to be improved in 2020: "It is a hard season to analyze from the standpoint that we did have a lot of injuries and things. We have talked about it before, but I would like to see us be a team that can be more consistent running the football. I think that has to be a part of the game. You try to improve everywhere every year, and we have plenty of places to try and improve that."
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
James Conner led the team in rushing in 2019 with 464 yards on 116 carries, which was good for a 4.0 average. That was the lowest total for the Steelers' leading rusher in a season since 1967 when rookie Don Shy gained 341 yards on 99 carries (3.4 average) for a team that finished 4-9-1.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2020
As Art Rooney II has said, one of the jobs of this offseason is to develop a more consistent running game. Based on his statement, it would seem to indicate that upgrading the running back position was mandatory. While attempting to do that either via free agency or the 2020 draft definitely could and likely should be on the Steelers' agenda this offseason, it remains a question whether they will be able to get it done, given their limited salary cap space and draft capital that also will have to be allocated to other positions.
And how is Conner to be evaluated? As the multi-dimensional three-down back he indicated he was capable of being a couple of seasons ago, or as an injury-prone tease who will break a team's heart by being unavailable when he's needed the most. If you like Conner, it's the former, and if you don't like Conner, it's the latter. But which is the truth?
"James unfortunately had bad luck this year in terms of injuries," said Rooney, "but when he has been healthy, he's been a very productive player for us. So we'd love to see him come back and be a healthy player over the course of a (full) season."
That's a sentiment undoubtedly shared by General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin, in addition to Steelers fans worldwide, but is it wise to bet a season on that? Probably not, because the rest of the depth chart doesn't really provide enough of a hedge in the event Conner goes through another injury-riddled season.
When healthy, Conner at least has provided the Steelers with evidence that he has the skill-set to be a three-down back in the NFL, but even last year at this time there must have been some doubts about whether he could be a workhorse three-down back in the NFL because the team invested a fifth-round pick on Benny Snell with the idea that he could help in situations where the Steelers held a second-half lead and wanted to protect it by running the ball and milking time off the clock.
Snell finished with 426 yards on 108 carries (3.9 average) as a rookie, and his improvement over the course of the year as a blocker and on special teams coverage units indicated he was willing to pitch in and do some of the dirty work associated with his profession. But Snell's speed and receiving skills aren't up to the level an NFL team typically wants in its No. 1 running back.
Speed is not an issue with Kerrith Whyte, but his size could be an impediment in blitz protection, and doing what's necessary to keep Ben Roethlisberger from getting creamed by the opposing pass rush is an important part of being a Steelers running back. Jaylen Samuels (47 catches in 2019 to finish No. 2 on the team in receptions) came to the NFL with the requisite receiving skills based on his role at North Carolina State, but it's still unknown whether he is capable of gaining tough yardage between the tackles (2.7 yards per carry average in 2019) on a consistent basis when game circumstances demand that.
The point being, the Steelers don't have one individual behind Conner with the skill-set to be a feature back for a team wanting to contend for a championship, and based on the last couple of seasons there cannot be a lot of confidence that Conner can stay healthy enough to be the kind of three-down back his skill-set indicates he can be over the course of an entire regular season.
NEXT: Offensive Linemen