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It’s clear the Steelers 2nd Round pick should be a running back – Behind the Steel Curtain

April 16, 2020

I don’t follow the NFL Draft or the Steelers needs as well someone who is really, really into such things.

For example, I’m not in some comments section in mid-January writing stuff like, “QB, Round 2, OLB, Round 3, G, Round 4” as a response to an article about a game someone went to with their dad in 1981.

But maybe that’s why it wasn’t absolutely clear to me until now what area the Steelers should address with their first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, which just so happens to be in the second round (49th, overall).

Let’s be real, the chances of finding a player who can make an impact decrease the further you get into the draft.

And that’s why the idea of taking a quarterback in the second round—you know, to groom as Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent?—just seems silly. But, then, it has always seemed silly to me to take a quarterback to groom for the future (even in the first round), when that’s really not how it’s done, anyway. Even if that was the standard protocol for finding the next quarterback, do you think it would be wise to do so with Roethlisberger still around—especially this year, with draft resources so limited?

Yeah, me either. I won’t bore you with that, though—I’ve made that argument more times than I can even count anymore.

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The bottom line is Roethlisberger is still here, and we can’t lose track of that championship window that we must presume is still open for business as long as No. 7 is healthy and employed by the team. If he is healthy, finding players who can help in 2020 should be the goal.

So if the idea is to draft someone in the second round who can help the Steelers right away, what position should they focus on?

A wide receiver could possibly make an immediate impact. However, he’d also have to make quite the first, second and third impression, considering he’d have three young studs in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson to force the coaches to have to forget about and/or move down the depth chart.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they could still find a young man with that kind of potential in the third or fourth round. Why? Because the consensus from experts and armchairs is that this is the deepest wide receiver draft class in decades—if not ever.

What about tight end? That may have seemed like a possibility a month ago, with nobody of note playing behind Vance McDonald, a player who didn’t exactly instill much confidence in your average fan, following his less-than-stellar performance in 2019—even if that may have been largely the result of playing the vast majority of his games without a franchise quarterback. But those fears seemed to be alleviated with the surprise free agent acquisition of Eric Ebron.

Just like that, Ebron was the stimulus check the position needed to remain afloat in 2020. And with so much money wrapped up in the tight end spot, it doesn’t seem prudent at this junction to infuse it with a premium draft choice.

The offensive line has been mentioned a lot, but the team has actually invested in the unit in recent years with 2018 third-round pick Chuks Okorafor and free agent Zach Banner, both of whom could be ready to contribute as starters in 2020. Also, the Stefen Wisniewski free agent pickup feels like the ultimate insurance policy for the left guard spot that was vacated after Ramon Foster retired. If Wisniewski doesn’t start at left guard in 2020, it will likely be because Matt Feiler, who acquitted himself quite nicely at the right tackle position the previous two years, does. And if the coaches are confident enough to move Feiler from a position he excelled at, that can only be because they are confident enough in either Okorafor or Banner to man the right tackle spot.

In other words, any offensive lineman that comes on board for 2020 likely won’t see the field until at least 2021.

As for the defensive side of things, I honestly don’t see an immediate need. Some have said nose tackle, thanks to the free agent departure of Javon Hargrave. However, considering how few snaps a nose tackle sees in today’s NFL—even in the Steelers defense—I’m not so sure how pressing the need is to replace Hargrave. Don’t get me wrong, the Steelers do need to replace him…and they have. His name is defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a player who missed most of 2020 and was replaced at defensive end by….Javon Hargrave.

An outside linebacker might make sense, considering Bud Dupree’s current contract status and the lack of real depth at the position. The Steelers could actually be in serious trouble if either Dupree or T.J. Watt goes down at some point in 2020. Therefore, why not go that route? Kind of like with Roethlisberger, you have to assume both Dupree and Watt will be healthy in 2020. And if one goes down, what are the odds a rookie will come close to having the same impact?

And that brings me to running back, the position that I should have been clamoring for all along. Why wasn’t I as far back as January? I guess because I was writing that article about that game I went to in 1981. If I had been paying serious attention, I would have realized right away which direction the Steelers should go with their second-round pick.

Most mock drafts I’ve read (and I realize, you can’t always go by the mock drafts) have no running backs going in Round 1, save for D’Andre Swift of Georgia. But this doesn’t mean the position is weak. It’s just a sign of the times and how running backs are viewed thanks to the wear and tear most of these guys have on their bodies by the time they make it to the pros.

For example, Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin, a player that has been linked to the Steelers in recent weeks, had 926 carries in three years. That is a lot of wear and tear. Deal-breaker? If it is, J.K. Dobbins from Ohio State (725 carries) and Cam Akers of Florida State (586 carries) may have more tread left on their tires.

It’s probably not wise to expect a running back, even one who becomes a superstar at the pro level, to excel at the position much beyond his rookie deal. But if you think you’ve identified a player who can give you a half-a-decade of superstar-level play, you’d be foolish not to draft him.

James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal. When he’s healthy, he’s good-to-often great. The problem is the injury bug, something that has caused him to miss 11 games in three seasons, and something I don’t see getting better with age and more wear and tear.

Would a rookie running back necessarily start right away? No. But unlike other positions, a backup running back can still come in and make an impact, even if he only sees 30 or 40 percent of the snaps.

With Conner likely gone after 2020 (I can’t see the Steelers signing him to a second deal), and with no clear-cut number two behind him, running back seems to be the obvious choice for the Steelers in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

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