Steelers should bolster offensive line before reaching for running back

The Pittsburgh Steelers are entering the post-James Conner era.

The popular running back, an Erie, Pennsylvania native and University of Pittsburgh alum, signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals last week. Much has been said about the Steelers possibly taking a running back early in this month’s NFL Draft, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac seems to think letting Conner go is all part of the plan on the South Side:

The Steelers appear to be content with Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Jr. as backups, possibly even Kalen Ballage, who was signed in free agency. But they want a more dynamic feature back, a player who can put back in the offense a dimension that has been missing since the departure of Le’Veon Bell. They will do that in the draft, most likely in the first round, no later than the second.

I’m still of the belief that bolstering the offensive line is the way to go early in this year’s draft. Maurkice Pouncey retired, David DeCastro isn’t getting any younger, and Alejandro Villanueva, if he comes back, has lost a step. The return of Zach Banner will be a positive addition, but he needs some help protecting first a quarterback who’s old enough to flirt with retirement, and later, his successor.

If you’re still smitten with the running back position, Alabama’s Najee Harris, linked to the Steelers in some mock drafts, and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are the top picks. Ohio State’s Trey Sermon could prove a good choice in a later round, once more pressing needs have been addressed.

But for now, back to the trenches.

If Zach Banner is kept at right tackle, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood jumps off the page of left tackle prospects, provided he is still on the board when the Steelers pick 24th.

Names that jump off the page aren’t always the most likely to stick around after the first 23 picks, but a blind-side protector that comes from a high-flying offense at an NFL factory like Alabama is always interesting.

Put it this way: there’s debate about whether Alabama quarterback and fellow NFL prospect Mac Jones is actually any good or whether he just benefits from an elite offense and getting to throw the ball to Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith. A left tackle is a key cog in an elite offense.

Center is another hole that needs filling on the offensive line. Quinn Meinerz has gotten some attention out of Divison III Wisconsin-Whitewater. From Tony Pauline at Pro Football Network:

Meinerz was a dominant small-school blocker who took it to another level at the Senior Bowl and dominated every day of practice. He’s a true power gap lineman who can line up at guard or center, and Meinerz comes with a large upside. He’s a determined prospect who I believe will be starting in the NFL by the end of his rookie season.

There’s a chance Meinerz could be gone by pick 24, but I’m thinking he may find himself overlooked because of the stature of the program he comes from. I’m reminded of a sentiment I’ve often seen thrown around during free agency, where people are skeptical of the Steelers making moves because “if his previous team didn’t extend his contract, there’s likely a reason.”

Hopefully, the center-needy teams among the 23 ahead of Pittsburgh in the draft order stay away from him because they can’t shake the feeling that a guy like that should be playing in the Big Ten and can’t stop wondering why he isn’t. The Steelers could get a diamond in the rough out of the indecision of others.

Either way, an offensive lineman is the priority in the first round. The Steelers should find their post-Conner running back of the future later.