Some Running Backs the Steelers Could Target in the Draft


Let me start off by saying that I do not believe that Pittsburgh will be looking to draft a RB early on Day 1 or Day 2.  There are too many holes on the Steelers’ roster to fill, and because there are quality NT, ILB, and OG (especially OG) prospects available in those Rounds, Pittsburgh would be more liable to fill those pressing needs early.  Nevertheless, many are projecting that the Steelers will be selecting a RB in the Draft in a couple of weeks, and some are even believing that the Steelers should/will target guys like Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Doug Martin, or LaMichael James as early as Round 2.

While I am not in the group which subscribes to the “RB in Round 1 or 2” train of thought, it still would not shock me if Pittsburgh went and drafted a RB at some point with one of their 10 picks to add depth to the position.  Plus, G.M. Kevin Colbert is always thinking “two steps ahead” of the competition and is always looking for value when April and “Draft Season” rolls around.  So, because I have covered multiple positions and draft options for each (ILB, OG, NT, S, WR, H-B/TE, OT, OLB) for NPC, I figured that I should at least provide a bit of analysis and discuss some relevant RB options which Pittsburgh might target in the coming weeks.  Let’s get started shall we:

What Kind of Back Should Pittsburgh Target?

While I personally believe that the Steelers’ RB Corps is not in need of a huge upgrade in 2012 (G.M. Kevin Colbert has even recently said that RB is no more of a need than another position), it still would not hurt if they acquired a quick, change-of-pace Back that can contribute on 3rd Downs, Special Teams, and be used as a receiving threat for 5-10 touches per game.

Pittsburgh already has three bruisers in the form of Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and John Clay on their roster and an all-around guy in the injured Rashard Mendenhall entering his contract year.  Thus, it would be a tad foolish and a bit wasteful to select a Robert Turbin of Utah State or Terrance Gannaway of Baylor type of player in the mid-late Rounds with quality players at Safety, Guard, and even Tackle still left on the board.  Furthermore, adding a Lamar Miller, David Wilson, or Doug Martin early would be nice and help the Offense, but the value at the RB position can be found much later on, especially if the Steelers are only looking to add to their RB-by-Committee and a role-player which brings a specific skill set to the table.

In terms of the 3rd Down Backs on their roster, it actually would make some sense if the Steelers drafted for depth/replacements.  Mewelde Moore’s contributions in 2011 were few and far between, and 2nd Year man Baron Batch may have impressed in Training Camp last season, but his knee injury still leaves him as a question mark entering this season and competition could be needed to push 2011’s 7th Round pick.

That being said, here’s a short list of players which could be on the Steelers’ radars in a couple of weeks:

Isaiah Pead

After a terrific career at the University of Cincinnati where he won The 2011 Big East Offensive Player of the Year Award, Isaiah Pead is drawing interest from many N.F.L. teams, including the Steelers.  During his career, Pead rushed for 3,288 Yards on 535 Carries (almost 6.15 YPC) and scored 27 TD’s, and also displayed some skills in the passing game as well.  Pead caught 87 Passes as a Bearcat (85 in his final 3 seasons), for 721 Yards and 6 TD’s, and I believe he fits the mold of an effective 3rd Down Back and essential piece to any Offense and RB-by-Committee group.

Pead’s work in Cincinnati’s wide-open Spread Offense might not be conducive to him being a straight-up every-down Back at the pro level.  Plus his 5’10” and 197 lb. frame might limit him to being an every-down-back. But as a 3rd Down guy and as one that can make plays in the passing game, Pead would be a nice addition to any Offense if he got 10-15 touches per game.  Adding to Pead’s current value is the fact that he can return punts (98 Yards on punt returns at Senior Bowl).  And this is only good news for a team like the Steelers that is in need of a punt returner now that Antonio Brown is being utilized more on the Offensive side of the ball.

Pead has actually already met with the Steelers brass for an interview recently, which could be a good sign that they want to draft him or are at least interested.  In the last couple of months, Pead has risen up Draft Boards with his M.V.P. performance at The Senior Bowl, and a solid Combine workout as well.  While I do not believe that Pead warrants a late-3rd Round selection or earlier, he could be worth a shot in the 3rd if Pittsburgh acquires more selections by trading out of the 1st or 2nd Rounds.  Thus, if Pead is on the board in mid-late Round 4, I would be happy if the Steelers decided to take him.

Ronnie Hillman

This might surprise most of you readers, but all of the prospects on this list, Hillman is the player on this list whose career I watched the most of in college.  As a life-long S.D.S.U. fan and San Diego native, I’ve watched Hillman tear up the Mountain West the last two seasons and help bring Aztecs football to a respectable level for a non-Big 6 school.

A Red-Shirt Sophomore, Hillman started both seasons he was eligible at San Diego State and burst on the scene as a RS-Freshman in 2010 and put up 1,532 Yards on 262 Carries.  What was more impressive was that Hillman scored 17 TD’s on the ground plus 1 through the air as the Aztecs won the Poinsettia Bowl (Hillman was Offensive M.V.P. of aforementioned game) to capture their first bowl victory since 1969.  Hillman followed up his fantastic 2010 campaign by shouldering a bigger load on Offense after WR’s Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson were drafted and rushed for 1,711 Yards on 311 Carries and scored 19 TD’s on the ground, and also made 24 Catches for 270 Yards for 1 TD as well.

The biggest knock on Hillman is the fact that he is not a large guy (5’9″ 200 lbs) and his competition in college is perceived as “weaker” compared to other RB’s which are also draft eligible.  Still, Hillman is a shifty RB that can make big plays in space, has solid hands, can break a big gain with his 4.45 speed, and should be able to handle Special Teams duties while getting 10 touches per game.  He fits the bill for a 3rd Down Back, and the Steelers could be without one if they decide to get rid of Moore and/or Batch is not ready or doesn’t contribute in 2012.  If Hillman is available in Rounds 4-7 Pittsburgh should at least take a look at Hillman because he could contribute and be a valuable addition to new Coordinator Todd Haley’s Offense in 2012 and beyond.

Michael Smith

While he may have been overshadowed a bit by his teammate and member of the 2012 RB Class Robert Turbin in college, Michael Smith will likely hear his name called on Day 3 in a couple of weeks after an under-the-radar college career.  After attending Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher for two years, Smith transferred to Utah State in 2009.  Smith missed most of the 2010 season with a foot injury after starting 6 games as a Junior and came back as a Red-Shirt Senior to team with Robert Turbin and give the Aggies a solid 1-2 punch in the ground game.  Last season, Smith rushed for 870 Yards on 117 Carries (7.6 YPC) and 9 TD’s, and added 16 Catches for 181 Yards and 2 TD’s.

Smith may not have been invited to The Combine a couple of months ago, but he really wowed scouts with his impressive performance at his Pro Day.  Smith showed off his athleticism and ran a 4.35 40 Yard Dash, had a 40.5 Inch Vertical Jump, and put up 225 lbs. in the bench press 23 times.  Smith also was named M.V.P. of a post-season All-Star game (Players All-Star Classic) where he rushed for 124 Yards on 12 Carries (80 Yard TD rush) and returned 4 Kicks for 105 Yards.

Smith will likely end up being drafted late on Day 3 due to his size (just under 5’9″ and 200 lbs.), his foot injury, and his small sample of production at a non-Big 6 school.  Nevertheless, a team like the Steelers with multiple picks in later Rounds (including 3 in Round 7) would provide a perfect situation for a speedster like Smith.

Chris Rainey (Wild Card)

At 5’8″ 180 lbs. Chris Rainey is not, and will not be asked to be an every-down Back as a pro.  Still, Rainey has a skill-set which translates well to him being a fantastic contributor and electrifying player at the N.F.L. level.  A jack-of-all-trades player for the Gators, Rainey ran for 2,464 Yards and 13 TD’s during his career at Florida (861 in Senior season), caught 69 passes for 795 Yards and 6 TD’s, and accumulated a combined 689 Yards on Punt and Kick returns during his career with the Gators.  In addition to ability to make plays with the football, Rainey also was a fantastic punt blocker in college.  Rainey blocked an S.E.C. record 6 punts, and would be valuable as a gunner on Special Teams if he is not being used to return punts and would be of value covering kickoffs to boot.

Rainey has drawn many comparisons to former Gator and Vikings slot WR Percy Harvin who played a similar role with Florida as Rainey did during his career.  Like Harvin, Rainey is a “swiss-army-knife” player and possesses great speed (4.45 40 at Combine and 4.3 at his Pro Day), and can be used in the slot and out of the backfield for a team looking to create issues for the opposing Defenses.

One reason I put Rainey on this list is new Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley and a former player he coached and selected when he was with the Chiefs: Dexter McCluster.  Much like Rainey, McCluster was a small, but effective, speedy, heady, and versatile player in college at Ole Miss during his career.  While he is not an every-down Back, McCluster has been an effective Offensive and Special Teams Weapon for the Chiefs over his first two seasons.  And last season when Jamaal Charles went down, McCluster helped pick up the slack and rushed for 516 Yards on 114 carries, caught 46 passes for 328 yards, and had 557 Yards on Kickoff Returns to boot.

Rainey however does not come without a bit of off-field baggage, and that could end up sliding him down some teams draft boards’.  In 2010, Rainey was charged with aggravated stalking after sending a violent text to a girlfriend.  The details are provided in the links below, but Rainey completed his pre-trial intervention program, and the girl he sent the text to expressed that she wanted the charges dropped as well.

I am sure that if Pittsburgh is targeting Rainey, the interview process will be of the utmost importance.  Furthermore, former teammates and close friends at Florida Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey will also likely be called upon to vouch for Rainey’s character if the Front Office is indeed interested.  In fact, Rainey moved in with the Pouncey’s and lived with them as he finished High School and accompanied them to Florida.  In the event Rainey is available in Round 4, and the Steelers see him as a McCluster type of player I would be on board with Colbert taking him.  Putting Rainey in the slot in 3 and 4 WR sets with Wallace, Brown, Sanders, and even Miller if he is in at TE would create matchup nightmares for the opposition, and Ben would annihilate Defenses if he got any sort of protection by throwing to those weapons.

Final Thoughts

Of the four guys I discussed above, I would like to see any in a Steelers uniform.  The “homer” in me wants to see the talented Hillman come to Pittsburgh and do well.  But as for raw athletic talent and matchup creating issues, Rainey would be a tremendous fit.  Having him, Wallace, and Brown on the field at the same time would strike fear into Defensive Backs and force Defenses out of their Base sets due to Rainey running patterns out of the slot and the backfield.

While RB will not be the most important position that the Steelers need to fill, with 10 picks Pittsburgh could be inclined to add one if the opportunity to take a talented player which slides arises.  Colbert and Co. are some of the best in the business and they will find terrific value no matter who they select if they do indeed decide to take a RB in a couple of weeks.  And hey, it doesn’t hurt for Big Ben to have more weapons to have at his disposal.

So let’s get stoked for Draft Day, “Steeler Nation.”  We’re less than 3 weeks away, and the clock is ticking.

Now’s the part where you the readers chime in and share your thoughts.  What are your thoughts about the Backfield situation?  Should Pittsburgh take a Running Back at all in the Draft?  If so, who should they select?  And where?  We’re getting close to Draft Weekend, and I’d like to hear your  opinions on the situation.