Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.
Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: James Conner – Expect the “Hometown” Hero to Leave Pittsburgh

The “Hometown Hero” and the “Underdog” are two staples of the modern sports narrative. Even though you’ve seen it multiple times, who can resist stopping and watching Hooisers when you spy Gene Hackman’s mug while sapping?

  • I can’t either. And neither can you or else you wouldn’t be reading this now, would you?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a two-for-one deal worthy of Giant Eagle when they brought James Conner into the fold back in 2017. Conner is from Western Pennsylvania, he played his college ball at Pitt where he had twin, 1000 yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns despite battling an ACL tear.

  • Oh, and did we mention he’s also a cancer survivor too?  

Now after four years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, James Conner is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Will we see him in Black and Gold again? Let’s take a look.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Capsule Profile of James Conner’s Career with the Steelers 2021

The Steelers made James Conner third-round pick out of Pitt in the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner was mostly a special teams contributor in his rookie season, as the running back reps behind then superstar Le’Veon Bell were few and far between.

  • Conner appeared in 14 games before suffering a season-ending torn MCL down the stretch.

Le’Veon Bell‘s 2018 hold out paved the way for Conner to have a breakout sophomore season. As the starter, Conner appeared to pick up right where Bell left off and was on pace to tally 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Conner, the injury bug bit him again late in the year and he wound up with 973 rushing yards to go along with 497 through the air, numbers that were still good enough to win him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Injuries proved to be troublesome for Conner again in 2019, as he missed six games with various ailments and only rushed for 464 yards. Conner appeared to return to his 2018 form at the beginning of 2020 while getting off to a hot start. Unfortunately, the ground game fizzled behind a struggling offensive line and a quarterback and coordinator perhaps too stubborn to commit to it.

James Conner finished up with 721 rushing yards in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Conner in 2021

Talent has never been an issue for James Conner. He has it and can be a productive running back when healthy. He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for and probably the only running back currently on the Steelers roster capable of being the type of weapon Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.

And remember, Le’Veon Bell broke Steelers single game regular and playoff rushing records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis ever touched.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Conner 2021

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “when healthy.”

That’s always been an issue for James Conner, who also suffered a torn ACL in college. The shelf life for most running backs is pretty short to begin with. Do the Steelers really want to give Conner a raise in free agency if they can’t really trust that he’ll be healthy enough to play a full 16 game season, let alone fulfill his new deal?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Conner in 2021

As a college hero who battled and defeated cancer while attending the University of Pittsburgh, Conner’s story is a great and inspirational one. He’s not a hometown hero strictly speaking, having grown up in Erie, Pa, but I think the native Pittsburghers now consider him one of their own.

  • Everyone knows Conner’s story and most root for him to succeed.

Having said all that, I think it’s in Conner’s best interest to go somewhere where he’s not James Conner the hometown college hero and not James Conner the cancer survivor. He needs to go somewhere where he’s just James Conner the running back. As for the Steelers, I think it’s best they move on and look to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft.

Expect that to happen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Rumors of James Conner’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (by me)

There is a monster, and that monster is me.

I don’t know if I got that Simpsons quote exactly right (that show has been on for a billion years), but I believe it accurately describes me and my perception of Steelers’ running back James Conner following his lackluster performance during a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his latest 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

In that game, Conner carried the football just six times for nine yards and wound up exiting with an ankle injury, an occurrence that paved the way for second-year man Benny Snell Jr. to carry the football 19 times for 113 yards.

Coming on the heels of back-to-back-back injury-filled seasons for the fourth-year man out of the University of Pittsburgh, I was pretty much over Conner and his fragility.

  • But maybe I should just get over myself.

Conner followed up his uninspiring 2020 debut with a 100-yard day in a 26-21 win over the Broncos at Heinz Field in Week 2. Two more such performances have followed for Conner since, and he’s clearly the alpha dog in Pittsburgh’s backfield.

James Conner has rushed for 369 yards through the first five games of the 2020 campaign for the undefeated Steelers and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. And if you take away Conner’s Week 1 fiasco (and I realize you can’t, but hear me out), he’s averaging 5.2 yards per rush.

Even if you add the statistics of Conner’s first game to his overall tally (and I don’t believe you’re legally allowed to expunge them), he’s still on pace to finish 2020 with 1180 yards, earning him the first 1000-yard season of his career.

That would certainly be a desirable outcome for a Steelers’ team that has always wanted to at least be effective running the football, if not totally balanced on offense.

Unlike previous Steelers editions, they don’t seem to be intent on running Conner until the wheels fall off in 2020. But even though Snell and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. have gotten their work in, they’ve combined for 25 carries and 102 yards since Week 2.

  • The Steelers may be trying more of a running back by committee approach, but it looks like they’ve decided to go with the low-fat version, thus far.

It’s obviously still a really young 2020 regular season, and Conner might make folks like me cynical again with another injury.

But my initial hot take regarding James Conner — head coach Mike Tomlin was playing favorites and Benny Snell Jr. had passed him by on the depth chart — has not aged well.

Maybe Mike Tomlin knows more than me after all.

 

 

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Time for James Conner Critics to Eat Crow? Not so Fast

“I hope you’re willing to eat a little crow,” is something sports fans say when someone has an opinion about a player or team they don’t agree with.

As it pertains to Steelers running back James Conner, perhaps I should prepare to do a little crow hunting for my dinner. Why? Because my strong opinion heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon was that Conner should play second fiddle to Benny Snell, Jr.

James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Broncos

James Conner rushes as Alejandro Villanueva blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Benny Snell, the Steelers fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries after coming in for an injured Conner in a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football just six days earlier.

Conner, who rushed for just nine yards on six carries before exiting the Week 1 contest, showed all of his critics, including me, that we were wrong in doubting him, as he carried the football 16 times for 106 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 26-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday.

Conner looked poised, healthy and strong as he put the finishing touches on Sunday’s win with a 59-yard scamper right after Pittsburgh took over on downs with 1:51 remaining.

As for Benny Snell, he did nothing to reward the faith those who had any in him, and he followed up what appeared to be a breakthrough performance six days earlier by gaining just five yards on three carries and almost breaking the Steelers’ back with a fumble early in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to get back into the game.

  • Now, the critics of James Conner’s critics are saying, “See? You were wrong! That’s what you get for making snap judgments.”

Whoa, I can’t speak for most of his critics, but I know I didn’t make any snap judgments about James Conner after Week 1. Those judgments and opinions were based on an entire body of work, mainly going back to late in the 2018 season, when multiple injuries forced him to miss several games down the stretch during a year in-which Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs.

  • James Conner missed six more games in 2019 due to various ailments and, to reiterate, his 2020 debut in New York was filled with more of the same.

As for my opinions on Snell, they weren’t formed based on just one game. In addition to Snell’s impressive 2020 debut, I based my opinion on how well he played down the stretch of the 2019 campaign, when he nearly caught Conner to become the team’s leading rusher on the season.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

I based my reasoning on Snell’s offseason conditioning program that saw him report to training camp 12 pounds lighter than his rookie campaign. I used that knowledge to wonder if Snell’s explosive running style in Week 1 could have been attributed to his sleeker look.

  • But mostly, I based my judgments and opinions on Conner and his unreliable health.

I mean, how silly would it have looked for me to call for James Conner to be benched after one game if he was coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons? Pretty darn silly.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Conner wasn’t coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons. Sure, he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 while filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who spent that entire year holding out in a contract dispute with the Steelers, but as I mentioned already, that season wasn’t devoid of injuries for Conner.

Fact is, Conner may have answered his critics this past Sunday, but is he going to continue to answer them on a consistent-enough basis over the course of the season? Make no mistake, when James Conner has been healthy and in the lineup, he’s generally been a really good running back for the Steelers, someone who would have made fans utter a collective “Le’Veon Who?” a long time ago.

But the fans haven’t forgotten about Bell, or at least the record breaking production he provided during his five seasons as the Steelers starting running back.

Sure, Bell had his problems with injuries and suspensions, but in terms of overall health and reliability, he was an Ironman on par with the late Mike Webster compared to James Conner.

As I’ve said many times, James Conner’s story, one that includes overcoming cancer, is a great and admirable one. But until he proves otherwise, Conner’s story must include a chapter about his problems with injuries.

Until he proves over and over again that he can be a reliable running back for the Steelers, only then will that chapter be edited out of his story.

And only then will his critics truly have to sit down and eat a little crow.

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James Washington and Jaylen Samuels Added to Steelers COVID-19 List. 8 Other Cut

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 “training camp” isn’t a week old yet, but two more players have been placed on the leagues COVID-19 reserve list – James Washington and Jaylen Samuels. The offensive duo joins cornerback Justin Layne, a third round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft. Aaron Springs, a fellow defensive back, was already on the list.

James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, Steelers COVID-19 List

Happier times. James Washington and Jaylen Samuels celebrate during the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The NFL instituted the COVID-19 reserve list in response to the pandemic. Being put on the list does not necessarily mean a player has tested positive for COVID-19, it can also mean that they’ve been in contact with someone else who has tested positive for the virus.

  • The NFL’s COVID-19 list contains asymptomatic and symptomatic designations.

Asymptomatic players are able to come off the list 10 days after their first positive test OR 5 days have passed since their first positive test AND two consecutive negative tests are completed separated by 24 hours within a five-day period.

  • All returns must be approved by a team’s physician whom must consult with ICS and NFL’s chief medical officer.

Symptomatic players must see 10 days pass after their first COVID-19 symptom and must have a full 72 hours pass since their last symptoms last occurred. Their return must be approved by their team’s doctor in concert with both the ICS and the NFL’s chief medical officer.

  • On top of that, local regulations and requirements are satisfied.

The health and safety of the players impacted must be of paramount concern, and it is Steel Curtain Rising’s sincere concern that James Washington and Jaylen Samules, (and Justin Layne and Aaron Springs for that matter) remain COVID free and return to the practice field in full health at Heinz Field.

  • But even in the pre-COVID era, attrition formed a fundamental part of football.

Put in simple English, injuries are part of the game. In that light, James Washington’s absence shouldn’t impact the Steelers wide receiver corps much. JuJu Smith-Schuster remains the leader, with Diontae Johnson returning to build on his strong rookie year. Chase Claypool, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will perhaps get a few more reps, but he was always going to make the team.

Potentially, Dion Cain could benefit (as could Ryan Switzer), but a best-case scenario would see James Washington returning to the Steelers roster before padded practices start on August 17th.

  • Jaylen Samuels situation is a bit more complicated.

James Conners and Benny Snell Jr. are roster locks, and Anthony McFarland Jr.’s status as this year’s 4th round picks doesn’t give him a lock on a roster spot, but a slot is basically his to lose. The Steelers also like Kerrith Whyte.

  • For the past several seasons the Steelers have kept 3 running backs plus a fullback.

Even prior to landing on the COVID-19 reserve list Jaylen Samuels was going to need to fight for a roster spot. Now that fight just got more difficult.

Henderson Leads Steelers Cuts

To meet the NFL’s 80 man roster limit the Steelers cut 8 players, including:

Quarterback, J.T. Barrett
Running Back, Ralph Webb
Wide Receiver, Quadree Henderson
Offensive Line, Christian Montani
Linebacker and Long Snapper Christian Kuntz
Linebacker, Dewayne Hendrix
Safety, Tyree Kinnell
Defensive End, Josiah Coatney

While it is no surprise, J.T. Barrett’s departure ends any speculation that he had a shot at competing with Paxton Lynch and Devlin Hodges for the third slot behind Mason Rudolph and Ben Roethlisberger.

Of the rest of the cuts Quadree Henderson is the most prominent. The Pitt graduate spent the summer of 2018 with the Steelers and turned in an strong preseason effort, but that wasn’t enough to land him a roster spot.

From there he spent time with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars and Panthers before returning to Pittsburgh last winter via the practice squad.

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Answering Need for Speed, Steelers Draft Anthony McFarland in 4th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, using their first of two 4th round selections to add the running back from Maryland to their backfield.

Anthony McFarland brings just two years of NCAA experience to Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Terrapins, McFarland rushed for over 1,600 yards, although his production dropped between his freshman and sophomore year due to injuries. With that said, McFarland did break the University of Maryland’s freshman rushing record.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner described McFarland as “He’s really explosive.” Faulkner continued, “He sees the crease, and it’s his ability to hit the crease — he gets from 0 to 60 quick.”

  • The highlights video below will bear that out.

What the video won’t show is some of the red or at least yellow injury flags that accompany McFarland’s arrival in Pittsburgh. The Maryland native and DeMatha Catholic graduate missed his senior year of high school with a broken leg, took a red shirt freshman year at Maryland, and then saw a high ankle sprain ruin his second year at Maryland.

Regardless, Anthony McFarland can look forward to seeing familiar faces in Pittsburgh. New Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was his coach at Maryland in 2018, Derwin Gray blocked for McFarland in 2018, and Mike Tomlin’s son Dino played with McFarland at Maryland, although according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, McFarland admits he never had contact with Tomlin.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

Steelers first 2020 4th round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, Jr. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports images, via NBC.com

Anthony McFarland Video Highlights

While he’s leaving College Park after just two seasons, Anthony McFarland Jr. put plenty on tape to establish his pedigree. Here is a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/thlKLUJwvUw?t=9

Anthony McFarland ran a 4.44 in the 40 and his burst of speed is more than evident. For comparison’s sake, James Conner clocked in at 4.65, Willie Parker ran a 4.28, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6, Benny Snell timed out at 4.65 while Dwight Stone ran a 4.25 (ah, weren’t expect a Dwight Hands of Stone reference, were you?)

So Anthony McFarland’s 40 puts him in good company, adds speed to the backfield and threatens Kerrith Whyte whose 4.36 40 speed is what made him so enticing to the Steelers last fall when Kevin Colbert did a rare bit of practice squad poaching.

Competition brings out the best and the Steelers backfield certainly must improve on its 2019 performance. Welcome to Steelers Nation Anthony McFarland.

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Steelers 2020 Running Back Draft Needs – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh

With the Pittsburgh Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft not coming until the second round (49th, overall), and with the team only having six picks, total, the focus will have to be quality over quantity. But where does running back sit on the pecking order for Pittsburgh as it prepares for a 2020 NFL Draft that could prove to be pivotal as it pertains to the upcoming regular season?

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

After a bittersweet first three seasons that included injuries and a Pro Bowl nod, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

  • Conner’s rookie season was relatively nondescript and was ultimately snuffed out by a torn MCL.

However, his sophomore campaign got off to a very promising start, as he opened up 2018 as the starter in place of Le’Veon Bell, who ultimately held out the entire season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Conner put up some very Bell-like numbers, rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and tallied another 497 yards and a score on 55 receptions.

  • Unfortunately, Conner’s season was beset by injuries, and he missed three games down the stretch.

A season ago, with the Steelers offense struggling to remain afloat amid the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner missed a total of six games and only tallied 464 yards on the ground.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018, showed some promise in his rookie season while filling in for Conner late in the year. He only rushed for 256 yards, but 142 of them came in a critical Week 15 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Jaylen Samuels took on a somewhat larger role in 2019 and acted as a bit of a security blanket as an outlet receiver out of the backfield for young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Samuels also often manned the quarterback position in the Wildcat formation employed by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to offset the absence of Roethlisberger.

  • But while Samuels caught 47 passes, he only tallied 305 yards, while adding just 175 on the ground.

Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, had a bit of a slow start to his rookie season, before coming on fairly strong at the end.

Benny Snell started two games late in the season — including a 98-yard performance in his first start against the Bengals on November 24 — and finished the season with 426 yards on the ground. 

The Steelers 2020 Running back Draft Needs

To reiterate, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • When he’s on, Conner has proven to be good-to-often great.

The problem has been the injury bug, something that likely won’t get better with age and more wear and tear. With the shelf-life for most running backs–even All Pros–proving to be so short in recent years, would it make any sense to offer Conner a second contract and a substantial raise?

As for Jaylen Samuels, he is probably best suited for the Swiss Army Knife role he came into the league with–running back/receiver/tight end–and not so much as a workhorse running back.

Snell Jr., who was very productive at Kentucky, is an intriguing unknown and could possibly thrive in a workhorse role.

Kerrith Whyte Jr., a player Pittsburgh signed from the Bears practice squad late in the year, is another intriguing player, complete with speed and shifty moves.

However, is Snell or Whyte intriguing enough not to address the running back position with a premium selection? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the Steelers top priority heading into the 2020 NFL Draft and can only be considered High.

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Steelers Reserve Running Back Benny Snell Avoids Marijuana Charges, Fails “Idiot Test.”

Pittsburgh Steelers reserve running back Benny Snell Jr. was in the news this week and largely for the wrong reasons. On Wednesday the Steelers announced that Snell will be out for a few weeks after knee surgery from injuries sustained during the Steelers Monday Night win over the Dolphins.

That came a day after news broke that Harrison County, Ohio prosecutors had declined to charge Benny Snell for marijuana possession. Snell had been stopped for speeding on August 30th when police discovered marijuana in his car, and he admitted to having smoked it about 20 minutes before the stop.

  • So while prosecutors gave a pass on criminal chargers, Benny Snell failed the “Idiot Test” with flying colors.

Now comes the obligatory paragraph where the writer acknowledges that cultural, social and legal norms and mores on marijuana are changing rapidly. Moreover, it is clear that marijuana does offer legitimate medical uses.

Great. Got it. Now let’s also acknowledge:

  • Marijuana remains illegal under federal law
  • Marijuana is also illegal under Ohio law
  • Use of marijuana violates the NFL’s code of conduct
  • Its against the law to drive under the influence of marijuana
  • Marijuana gives off a highly distinct odor
  • Odor or no, police offers are permitted to search anything in plain view during traffic stops

Regardless of your views on marijuana, you knew all of this before you read it. Its likely that anyone from high schoolers or above know it too. Benny Snell Jr. knew all of that too and if he didn’t, he certainly should have.

Yet, he not only chose to drive after smoking marijuana in his car, he drove above the speed limit and while he had a bag of marijuana on the front seat (the bag had a Star Wars logo, we’re told.)

Snell won’t face criminal charges, but now that his offense is in the public eye, he could very well find himself in the NFL’s substance abuse program, which would include regular random drug tests. And for that, he has only himself to blame.

  • For the record I like Benny Snell.

Lack of depth at running back has plagued the latter part of the Mike Tomlin-Ben Roethlisberger era. Based on his play against the Chargers, Benny Snell looks like he’s at least capable of being a quality third running back behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels.

But what he did here is really dumb.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

No Charges for Chickillo, Could Still Face League Discipline

Speaking of charges, Steelers reserve linebacker Anthony Chickillo will not face charges stemming from an alleged domestic incident between him and his girlfriend during the Steelers bye week at Nemacolin Woodlands.

  • As a result, Anthony Chickillo has been removed from the NFL’s Commissioner’s list.

The move returns Chickillo to the Steelers roster where he’ll back up T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. However, Chickillo isn’t out of the woods yet. Per Kevin Colbert’s statement, the NFL will continue to investigate the issue and he “could still be subject to discipline by the League Office under the Personal Conduct Policy.”

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminds us , Anthony Chickillo could face a six game suspension with as a first time offender, although the league office reserves the right to revise that upwards or downwards.

To make room for Anthony Chickillo on the roster, the Steelers released Jayron Elliott.

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Steelers Can’t Get a Break: Jaylen Samuels Knee Surgery Sidelines RB #2 for a Month

In his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin dropped a bit of a bomb when he announced that running back Jaylen Samuels has his knee scoped and will be out for close to a month. Yes Steelers Nation, we have seen this movie before, only in 2019 it is hitting theaters earlier.

To be fair to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers did at least attempt to upgrade their number 3 running back slot when they drafted  Benny Snell Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. Benny Snell only has 6 rushing attempts to his name, and while his 5 yard average might look impressive, 23 of those came on one run in the Steelers loss to Seattle.

  • Nonetheless, Benny Snell is now Steelers RB number 2 behind James Conner.

The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their practice squad and will likely activate him before Sunday Night’s game against the Chargers. The Steelers brain trust of course built the roster with Ben Roethlisberger in mind. But now they don’t even have the luxury of Mason Rudolph starting, as Devlin Hodges will get the nod this week.

Sadly, a Steelers Tomlin-era tradition of struggling to keep RB 1 and RB 2 healthy continues.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Steelers Cut Xavier Grimble

The Steelers also made another move prior to Sunday’s loss against the Ravens, when they waived tight end Xavier Grimble with an injury settlement. The move is slightly puzzling. The Steelers rarely wave players on injured reserve, as the last time they did so was when they cut Bruce Gradkowski in the fall of 2016.

Xavier Grimble had entered 2019 as the Steelers number 2 tight end, but that role appeared to be too big for him. Certainly Grimble, unlike Jesse James, wasn’t able to hold his own in Vance McDonald’s absence.

  • On paper the presence of Nick Vannett would appear to make Grimble expendable.

And restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, so the move makes salary cap sense for the Steelers. Still, if either McDonald or Vanett were to go down for an extended period, Grimble would have been available for the 2nd half of the season.

No one would have looked to Grimble as a savior in such circumstances, but at least he’d have brought more experience than Zach Gentry. With that said, it is entirely possible that Xavier Grimble asked for his release, as he’ll be free to latch on to another team.

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