The Optimist’s Take – Running Back Depth

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: Where will the running back depth come from in 2014, and what will it offer?

As it stands right now, the Steelers have only one of the five running backs from last season under contract for 2014, with that one being, obviously, Le’Veon Bell. The other four—Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and LaRod Stephens-Howling—are all unrestricted free agents.

Of the four, Redman was cut during the season. Dwyer was cut before the season began, only to be re-signed when Stephens-Howling was lost for the year. Jones was traded for late in the preseason to provide depth and competition.

We all know that Bell is at the top of the depth chart, with no competition. Dwyer, however, proved to be a more than capable short-yardage and change-of-pace back. As I wrote previously, he averaged nearly 4.4 yards per carry following the team’s early Bye to the end of the season.

According to Jim Wexell, the front office is evidently higher on bringing back Stephens-Howling than the majority on the outside of the organization believe. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been looking to bring in a Dexter McCluster-type runner since coming to Pittsburgh, only to be foiled by the frail Chris Rainey and then the opening day injury to Stephens-Howling last year.

Assuming that he will be healthy (and there are no indications that he would not be), he should be able to provide the lateral and receiving threat that Haley and the organization covets for outside zone packages. While he had little opportunity, he showed up impressively in the preseason while not battling injuries, so as long as he’s healthy, he should add a dynamic to the running game that the team has been waiting on for a while now.

Beyond Dwyer and Stephens-Howling, there are many ways the Steelers can go if they wish to carry four running backs, as they did to start the 2013 season. Most notable would be Alvester Alexander, who spent the entire year on the practice squad after being a late addition to replace Curtis McNeal. He did well in the preseason and could earn time on the active roster in his second year with the organization.

Also under futures contracts are Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole. Both are former undrafted free agents and are unknowns, but could perhaps surprise, or at least provide competition for Alexander.

More likely, the Steelers could target another running back in the draft, probably in the later stages of the draft, especially if the team is actually awarded a compensatory pick in the seventh round. A moderate free agent signing is not impossible, but probably unnecessary, as Dwyer has shown in the past that he could carry the load as long as the offensive line holds up its end of the bargain.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • grw1960

    Originally my thoughts were the same. But with so many Jr RB s coming out this year for the draft , enlarging the RB draft group.
    I could see them taking one in any round after round 1. After all if Bell gets injured , Do you really want to go through the season with Dwyer and Howling as your main RBs??
    And they did interview Carey at the combine. Due diligence , wishful thinking or purpose in mind???

  • blackandgoldBullion

    LSH would be great if he’s healthy. He needs to be able to make quick cuts like he used to do in order to be affective. That would kill 2 birds with 1 stone, as he can return kicks and be dangerous. Also he can be a great change of pace back, as he is very good out of the backfield.

    RB’s are a dime a dozen these days, so they should still pick one up in the late rounds or as a UDFA. Again someone that can be a smaller quicker guy that can also return kicks. The Steelers are at a serious disadvantage in the kick return game as the good teams usually get 2 or 3 TD’s a season there, where our favorite team gets nothing. They need a serious return threat that can double as a backup at another position, like CB or RB.

  • Milliken Steeler

    Nothing wrong with Dwyer actually. Only back we have had to carry a 4.0 ypc three years running.

  • Derick L Young

    I see more of a later round pick if they go RB, which is possible. Bell showed durability this season. Way too many needs on defense to use a 2nd or the possible 3rd they get on a RB. JMO

  • Steve

    Agree mostly what you say Bullion. AB did a pretty good job returning kicks last year. We need to sign Dwyer after the Draft and a small speedy back for a change of pace.

  • 243546

    This might be a good year to draft a RB. There’s a lot of talent at other positions that could push many of these RB’s into the later rounds. Especially since there isn’t a premier RB this year, you could see some guys who would normally be a late second round pick, available when the Steelers pick in round 4.

  • shawn

    Bell needs close to 20 carries a game … we dont have room for a Carey … Dwyer is fine … let Howling go and pick up one of the change of pace backs as a cheaper option and better KR in the late rounds like Archer/DAT …

  • shawn