One running back checks the most boxes for Steelers in 2021 NFL Draft

North Carolina Tar Heels running back Javonte Williams (25). Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina Tar Heels running back Javonte Williams (25). Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers will no doubt be looking to upgrade the running back position this April. Here’s who could be the best fit in Pittsburgh. 

After a season that ended in disappointment for the Steelers, many in the media were quick to point the finger at the lack of a Pittsburgh rushing attack. Though there are many factors that go into having a successful running game, it was evident that their group of underwhelming backs was not getting the job done.

The Steelers were dead last in the league in rushing in 2020 with just 82.5 yards per game. Even more concerning is that they finished at the very bottom of the NFL in yards per attempt (3.6), and their explosive run rate and first down rate were both dismal. Clearly, the offensive line needs to improve, but this group was far from efficient running the football a season ago.

James Conner is now an unrestricted free agent and hasn’t done nearly enough to warrant a second contract, while Benny Snell has very much proved to be the slow, plodding runner I thought he was coming out of Kentucky in 2019. Anthony McFarland will have a chance to improve on his performance from 2020, but we didn’t see much from him as a rookie last season.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, and Art Rooney II each expressed at one point or another this offseason that fixing the running game is a high priority for them, but the Steelers won’t have the money to do so in free agency. Instead, it’s a common thought that Pittsburgh could invest high in a running back during the 2021 NFL Draft.

But of the running backs who are slated to go in the first few rounds of the draft, which player checks the most boxes Pittsburgh typically looks for?

Recently, I decided to create a running back checklist using the traits that the Steelers typically look for when targeting the position. Though there is no exact science to this, I’ve used data from Pittsburgh’s draft history to predict who checks the most boxes for them this year:

While Alabama’s Najee Harris seems to be the most commonly mocked player to the Steelers, history tells us we should dispute this selection. Though Harris ticks most of the boxes Pittsburgh looks for in an early-round running back, he’s not number one on this list. That spot belongs to North Carolina’s Javonte Williams.

Williams has been less frequently mocked to the Steelers this offseason, but he is a player that many believe will be high on their radar this April. While both Williams and Harris have the desired size and workhorse traits, Williams checks two boxes that Harris does not: his underclassman status and very young age.

If you recall, Le’Veon Bell was not only a true junior coming out of Michigan State in 2013, but he was also just 20 years old during the pre-draft process. Williams is much of the same as he will be 20 years old up until the NFL Draft. Though age doesn’t mean a lot at the running back position (as many of these players typically only receive on contract with their first team), it could be enough to sway Pittsburgh on draft day. With Williams being more than 2 years younger than Harris, perhaps they believe he’s a guy that could earn a second contract.

Trey Sermon is another player who could be high on Pittsburgh’s radar during the draft. Though he doesn’t check as many boxes as Williams or Harris, he’s not far behind, and the value could be right if the Steelers choose to go a different route with their first two picks.

Behind these three, Travis Etienne, Michael Carter, and Kenneth Gainwell are a bit on the smaller side but are each very good prospects in their own right. Despite their impressive athletic traits and ability to break big runs, all three weigh in at 205 pounds or less, and the Steelers typically look for much bigger backs early.

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I’m certainly not advocating that the Steelers follow this checklist to a tee. Rather, I used this visual to show who Pittsburgh might be most interested in drafting the April. Whoever they decide to go with at the running back position, let’s hope it’s a big upgrade over what they currently have on the roster.