Steelers could be getting another Rashard Mendenhall if they go RB early
By Tommy Jaggi
The Steelers have a plethora of needs and not enough picks in the NFL Draft. Here’s why they could be getting another Rashard Mendenhall if they take a RB early.
We are now just days away from the 2021 NFL Draft, and not a lot has changed over the past several weeks when it comes to who Steelers fans are hoping to land this April. Pittsburgh’s roster took a massive blow this offseason when they lost a handful of key contributors in Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson, and Matt Feiler. But despite all of their losses, many fans are convinced that the team must address the running back position with the 24th overall pick this year.
Two players who have continually been on the team’s radar are Najee Harris and Travis Etienne. Admittedly, both are quality prospects who could help improve a team’s run game, but I don’t believe either is worthy of first-round consideration. Harris has been a fan favorite since even before Alabama won the National Championship Game, and he has been, without a doubt, the most frequently mocked player to the Steelers this offseason.
In order for the Steelers to make this pick, however, they must go against all draft trends Kevin Colbert has practiced over the past twenty years – trends that have allowed them to assemble a roster that would win two Super Bowls during that time.
Pittsburgh has taken just one first-round running back in the Kevin Colbert era: Rashard Mendenhall. While we all know how his career turned out, the prospect coming out of Illinois was thoroughly impressive. At 5’10” and 225 pounds, Mendenhall raised eyebrows at the NFL Combine with a 4.41-second 40-yard dash and a 4.18-second short shuttle while boasting 26 reps on the bench press. In addition, he was thoroughly impressive as a 20-year-old junior prior to entering the NFL Draft – earning 1,681 rushing yards on 6.4 yards per carry and chipping in 34 receptions for 318 yards.
Despite his dominance at the collegiate level, the Steelers showed that they were in no position to draft a running back that high. An aging Pittsburgh offensive line that really lacked star power proved to be a big issue for the Black and Gold after drafting Mendenhall. Though the running back’s rookie season was cut short due to a shoulder injury, even ‘Fast’ Willie Parker couldn’t average more than 3.8 yards per carry in 2008 (just a year removed from a 1,300-yard performance). Ultimately, Mendenhall lasted just 5 years in Pittsburgh and managed a mere 3.9 yards per carry in his NFL career that was finished by the age of 26.
Steelers could be getting another Mendenhall-like career if they draft a running back at pick 24
Last year’s offensive line performance was one of the worst I have seen by the Steelers since I started watching football in the ’90s. They ranked 31st in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus, and Ben Roethlisberger was forced to get the ball out of his hands faster than any quarterback in the league in pass sets. Even the great David DeCastro really struggled last season.
Drafting a running back in the first round might be able to give them a boost in the running game, but it’s not going to fix the root of the issue. We all know that either Harris or Etienne would be a substantial upgrade over what the Steelers currently have on their roster – nobody is denying that. However, I still think it would be very unwise to expect a first-round running back to make a difference in the win-loss department next year.
Just like Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker struggled behind some poor offensive line play, we could see a repeat of this if the Steelers were to take a running back in the first round. Pittsburgh lost Maurkice Pouncey and Matt Feiler so far this offseason, and have done next to nothing in terms of replacing them. In addition, Alejandro Villanueva recently had a visit with the Baltimore Ravens and it doesn’t seem likely that he will return at this point.
As of now, Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner are expected to be Pittsburgh’s starting offensive tackles in 2021 with B.J. Finney likely to slide in for Pouncey at center. Though the easy answer seems to be to draft and replace, Pittsburgh would forgo taking a potential quality offensive lineman with the 24th overall pick in favor of a running back.
Pittsburgh has clearly ignored the offensive line in the NFL Draft for far too long, and it is really starting to catch up to them. While I’m not denying that Najee Harris or Travis Etienne could make an impact from the gate for the Steelers, this would very much seem like a Rashard Mendenhall pick to me. They would get a very good running back prospect, but the same old issues would persist.