Here is the next in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2022 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 15.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, Benny Snell, Derek Watt, Jeremy McNichols (IR)
(Free agent scorecard: 2 unrestricted, Benny Snell, Derek Watt, 1 restricted, Jeremy McNichols)
A LAST LOOK AT 2022
It was a slow start to the 2022 season for both Najee Harris individually and the Steelers' rushing attack as a whole. At the midway point in the season, the Steelers were averaging 94.9 yards rushing per game as a team and Harris was averaging 3.3 yards per carry.
Post-bye, the Steelers averaged 146 rushing yards per game and Harris averaged 4.1 yards per attempt, gaining 673 yards over the final nine games.
Harris suffered a Lisfranc injury in training camp and apparently struggled through that for a good portion of the season.
"Naj has gotten healthy and the way he's running the football now is a drastic difference from the way it was early on," Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "That's starting with the line. It's not just Naj, but I think you see that. And obviously, Jaylen (Warren), we've always talked a lot about what he's done running the football."
Well, not always with Warren. He made the roster as an undrafted rookie and not only won the backup job behind Harris, but forced his way onto the field as a third-down back.
The Steelers talked in the offseason and training camp about lessening the workload on Harris, who got 381 touches as a rookie in 2021 (307 carries, 74 receptions) and they did that with his touches falling to 313 this season. He still produced 1,263 total yards, down from 1,667 as a rookie, but much of that can be attributed to the slow start and his overall usage in the passing game. Harris saw his receptions fall from 74 in 2021 to 41 this season.
The emergence of Warren allowed the Steelers to do that. The rookie gained 379 yards rushing on 77 attempts and also had 28 receptions for 214 yards.
Together, he and Harris formed a nice 1-2 punch, particularly in the second half of the season.
Benny Snell didn't get as much work as he had in previous seasons after being passed on the depth chart by Warren, but he did gain 90 yards on 20 carries, all of which came in a three-game stretch between Weeks 12 and 14 when Warren was dealing with a hamstring issue.
Snell rushed for 90 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries. Snell is a valuable special teams player, finishing with 284 snaps on that unit, far more than the 42 he played on offense.
The same could be said of fullback Derek Watt, though he did play 77 offensive snaps, just five fewer than he had played in 2021. Watt tied for the team lead with 290 special teams snaps and also set career highs for rushes (9), rushing yards (21) and receptions (5). Watt was especially useful in short-yardage situations, as eight of his nine carries resulted in first downs. He also scored two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving.
ONE STAT THAT STOOD OUT
According to Pro Football Focus, Harris produced 55 missed tackles forced in 2022, which ranked as the sixth-most in the NFL. Warren forced 19 missed tackles, giving the Steelers' two primary running backs 74.
• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast
LOOK AHEAD TO 2023
Harris and Warren both will be 25 next season, so they're both still in their respective primes.
And given how they finished the season, they could be one of the top 1-2 punches in football next season.
But who is going to be there with them?
Both Snell and Watt head into potential free agency, meaning both could be elsewhere. If that's the case, they'll need to be replaced.
The Steelers selected tight end/fullback Connor Heyward in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft to perhaps be the potential long-term replacement for Watt.
And he proved to be a downfield weapon as a pass catcher, as well as running for 27 yards on two rushing attempts.
Former fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland spent most of the season on the practice squad, but in the one game he was active, he had six carries for 30 yards and two receptions for 11 more.
Jeremy McNichols was signed at the start of training camp, but barely made it through a week before suffering a shoulder injury that landed him on season-long injured reserve. He's a restricted free agent, and the Steelers would have to tender him an offer to potentially retain his services.