By: Dave Stewart
It is no secret that Pittsburgh will be drafting a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Coming off of a season where they ranked last in the NFL in rushing, the Steelers watched their leading rusher depart to Arizona via free agency.
Benny Snell, the team’s second leading rusher in 2020, heads a running back room of modest talent. Journeymen Kalen Ballage and Wendell Smallwood join Jaylen Samuels and 2020 draft pick, Anthony McFarland Jr. to round out the unit. None of these backs have rushed for 1,000 yards in their careers, much less in a single season.
There is a clear need for a young ball carrier with upside, as well as room for such a player to be an early producer in the backfield. The Steelers have been linked to a few rookie rushers that could fit the bill.
Najee Harris – Alabama The prize back in this year’s draft, Harris figures to be selected in the first round. Both big and fast, Harris is a powerful runner between the tackles. He has great athleticism for a larger back and displays great hands in the passing game. Combined with his ability and aggression as a pass blocker, Harris has the tools to be an every down back in the NFL. While his skill set is ideal for Pittsburgh, the Steelers have multiple needs and it is not my expectation that they would select a running back in round 1. However, if they do, Harris would be a great fit in black and gold.
Chuba Hubbard – Oklahoma State Hubbard is a big play waiting to happen. With excellent top speed, Hubbard is always a broken tackle away from a huge gain. In 2019, he led the FBS in rushing, as well as yards after contact. With impressive strength and balance, Hubbard is not an easy player to bring down. An underwhelming 2020 season, in which he battled through ankle injuries, and concerns about ball security have Hubbard looking like late day 2 or early day 3 selection. Depending on how far he slides, he could end up being a draft bargain.
Rhamondre Stevenson – Oklahoma Stevenson is a strong and punishing runner with a big body and adequate quickness. He has a tendency to carry would-be tacklers along with him as he carries the ball up the middle. With a knack for earning the tough yardage, Stevenson could restore an element of short-yardage and goal-line production to a Steelers’ offense that sorely lacked it in 2020. He is not expected to be chosen before the third and final day of the draft, and should the Steelers wait until then, Stevenson could quickly become a specifically defined part of the rotation in Pittsburgh.
Jermar Jefferson – Oregon State A solid three-year contributor at Oregon State, Jefferson also figures to be a third-day selection. While not as large as Harris or Stevenson, Jefferson is still big and runs with a physical style that wears out defenders as the game progresses. He uses his outstanding field vision to extend plays and find cutback lanes. Among the nation’s leaders in yards per game during his final season at Oregon State, Jefferson has found a way to produce. Were he to become a Pittsburgh Steeler, he adds lateral speed and quickness and can be anticipated to carry a significant share of the load.
Ultimately, whether they choose to take a running back early or wait until later rounds to seek value, the player the Steelers select will be asked to be a big part of the rushing attack immediately. The urgency to get their rushing offense out of the league’s basement will be a real focus of the Steeler coaching staff during the course of the offseason. Each of the players discussed here brings their own skills to what is certain to be a committee approach to the running back position.