The Steelers have always been a team that likes to roster three running backs. Could they break the trend by keeping a fourth in 2020?
Like any other team in the league, the Steelers have trends they like to stick to when it comes to the NFL Draft, free agency, spending, and retaining players. Pittsburgh has a business trend that we are all familiar with. They bet on their drafting ability to pay their own players and spend low in free agency. That hasn’t changed.
However, the Steelers have already gone against one trend this offseason. Could they break another?
When drafting, Pittsburgh has certain thresholds they look for at certain positions. For wide receivers, they tend to draft players who had a least one great year of productivity in college. Defensively, they have been drafting 95 percentile athletes or above since 2014, according to Three Sigma Athlete (with Artie Burns being the only exception).
When it comes to the running back position, the Steelers have always had a certain mold of player they look for. After studying their draft trends, Pittsburgh usually goes with running backs that meet their thresholds of being at least 5’10” and at least 215 pounds. This isn’t something that should come as a total surprise, as their three top running backs from 2019 all met these loose requirements.
However, the Steelers went against the trend when they drafted Anthony McFarland in the fourth round. At just 5’8” and 208 pounds, McFarland doesn’t fit the mold of a workhorse back, and his play doesn’t resemble anything close to that of his Pittsburgh teammates.
After breaking one trend with size thresholds this offseason, the Steelers could be in line to break another. Pittsburgh is a team that almost always rosters just three running backs (excluding the fullback position). Now it’s possible that they could keep four.
James Conner is a lock to make the roster, as is Benny Snell who is just turned 22 years old and has three years left on his rookie deal. Likewise, Pittsburgh isn’t getting rid of Anthony McFarland. This leaves us with Jaylen Samuels – the Steelers fifth-round pick from 2018.
Samuels still has two years remaining on his rookie contract, but he has only proven to be a modest runner between the tackles. However, Samuels has a trait that some of the other running backs lack: He’s a very good receiver out of the backfield. In his first two seasons, Samuels has caught 73 of 86 targets for nearly 7.0 yards per catch and 4 touchdowns.
If Samuels was more in the mold of Conner or Snell, he likely would be pushed off the roster. But because he has a different role in the passing game, it’s likely Pittsburgh could elect to break their usual trend and roster four running backs in 2020.