The Pittsburgh Steelers obviously need to upgrade their rushing attack from DFL if they’re meant to compete at a consistent level in 2021. However, the latest NFL rumors suggest the Steelers are planning to address the running back position in the first round of the NFL Draft, which would be the wrong approach to take.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that Pittsburgh is eying either Alabama’s Najee Harris or North Carolina’s Javonte Williams with the 24th overall pick:
While Harris and Williams could very well be strong NFL players, and rank 36th and 43rd respectively on Sportsnaut’s top 100 big board, drafting a tailback on Day 1 is just a bad move in the modern NFL.
Running back is the easiest position to replace, and most interchangeable in all of football. That Harris and Williams are rated so highly on the aforementioned big board speaks to how much they’re respected, and how dynamic they are. Either of them could shine if they land with the right team in Round 1.
It’s just that the Steelers aren’t that team for either of these players with the way they’re currently constructed, and how they’re trending for the future.
Pittsburgh Steelers not built to take feature back in Round 1
A big reason why Pittsburgh couldn’t run the ball last year was the offensive line’s inability to block, and the lack of commitment the Steelers made to the running game in the first place.
Lack of creative play design, an over-reliance on aging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the quick passing game, and yes, the absence of a true game-changing back all contributed to the lost cause.
Now, Pittsburgh faces even more uncertainty entering 2021. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey retired. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva doesn’t appear to be returning to the team. Longtime guard David DeCastro is entering the last year of his contract. Chukwuma Okorafor graded 70th out of 79 qualifying tackles at Pro Football Focus last season.
Who Pittsburgh Steelers should actually target in Round 1 of 2021 NFL Draft
- Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC
- Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
- Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia
In running through a couple of quick simulations on The Draft Network’s mock machine, there are quality players still available when the Steelers go on the clock at 24 who’d be much more valuable to their short- and long-term plans.
USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker is a guard by trade, yet when he stepped into left tackle in 2020, he thrived there as well. Pittsburgh could try him out wherever it sees a fit, and he’d be an instant starter.
Teven Jenkins’ versatility suggests he can play on the inside due to his nasty demeanor and mauling mentality as a run blocker. What’s most appealing about him, though, is that Jenkins played mostly right tackle at Oklahoma State, yet got plenty of live game reps on the left side as well.
Another option, albeit less recommended, is for Pittsburgh to get a speedy SEC cornerback in Georgia’s Eric Stokes in Round 1 and then address the offensive line on Day 2 of the draft. Given the Steelers’ infatuation with running backs, though, they should probably address the trenches right away so they can take a back in the second round.
It even seems more worthwhile to spend a first-round pick on a second-tier QB to succeed Roethlisberger. Someone like Kyle Trask, Davis Mills or Kellen Mond would make more sense than taking a running back.
Pittsburgh Steelers mock draft: 3-round results plug holes, bring backfield help
Lo and behold, in one of the mock simulations, Javonte Williams was still on the board in Round 2 at 55th overall. Not saying that’ll happen in the real draft, but there’s a chance.
Here’s a most sensible Steelers three-round mock draft, capped by a third-round running back in Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell who ran for over 1,400 yards in his last action in 2019 and caught 51 passes for 610 yards:
- First round 24th pick: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC
- Second round, 55th pick: Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State
- Third round, 87th pick: Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
Williams’ Tar Heels backfield mate, Michael Carter, was also still on the board in the third round, and he’s an extremely explosive ball-carrier who can take it to the house on any given play. If you like him more, there you go.
Running back isn’t the problem in Pittsburgh, nor is finding a decent one in the draft outside of the first round. The Steelers can’t think it’s still 1995 and target that position to start. They have too many other holes up front on offense and in the secondary to justify spending their top pick on a back.