Is Anthony McFarland best option for Steelers if they miss out on RB early?

Anthony McFarland #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Anthony McFarland #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images) /

The Steelers have a need for a running back in the NFL Draft, but here’s why Anthony McFarland might be the best option if they miss out early.

I don’t need to sit here and tell you how abysmal the Steelers running game was last season; you clearly already know that. After finishing dead last in the league in both rushing yards per game and yards per rush attempt, Pittsburgh’s brass expressed multiple times this offseason that they will make it a point to fix the run game this year.

One way that many fans expect them to do that is by selecting a running back with the 24th overall pick – whether that be Alabama’s Najee Harris or Clemson’s Travis Etienne. While both players are considered among the best in the 2021 NFL Draft class, I wouldn’t count on this happing. Pittsburgh has spent just one first-round pick on a running back over the past 31 years (Rashard Mendenhall), and they still value many other positions over this.

If they miss out on Etienne or Harris in the first round, both players are sure to be gone before the Steelers make their second selection at 55 overall. By this point, it’s possible that North Carolina’s Javonte Williams is gone too.

I know that Pittsburgh’s backs were far from spectacular in 2020, but if the draft shapes up this way, would second-year running back Anthony McFarland be the best option for this team moving forward?

Why rolling with McFarland makes sense for Steelers

While Pittsburgh’s 2020 rookie class was full of pleasant surprises, McFarland was not one of them. When given the opportunity, the speedster running back seemed to miss a few gaping holes and even tripped over his own feet on occasion. However, it stands to reason that he could see a much better season in year two.

McFarland saw just 33 carries in 11 active games last season as a 21-year-old football player. What he does have, however, is a trait that most of the running backs in the 2021 class do not possess: terrific top-end speed. Though a bit on the smaller side at 5’8” and 208 pounds, McFarland blazed with a 4.44 official 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last year.

In comparison, Javonte Williams measured in at just 5’9 1/2” and 212 pounds but ran a 4.57 at his Pro Day (which would have been even worse for a Combine-adjusted time). His teammate, Michael Carter (who is considered by most to be a top-5 back in this class) ran just a 4.54 at 5’7 3/4” and 201 pounds.

Speed obviously isn’t everything, but if you put on McFarland’s tape from his time at Maryland, he was thoroughly impressive. In 2018 with Matt Canada, McFarland averaged a whopping 7.9 yards per carry and 10.4 yards per reception, according to Sports Reference. This included a game against Ohio State in which he compiled 298 yards on 21 carries (14.2 yards per attempt) and 2 touchdowns.

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The Steelers can certainly get an upgrade over Anthony McFarland if they are able and willing to take a running back early in the 2021 NFL Draft. However, if they elect to go a different direction and miss out on the top talent, McFarland could very well prove to be a better option than the players that will be on the board in the mid rounds this year.