Steelers sign a veteran running back with a niche that could help

Jeremy McNichols #28 of the Tennessee Titans. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Jeremy McNichols #28 of the Tennessee Titans. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

It didn’t take long for the Pittsburgh Steelers to find a new running back after releasing Trey Edmunds. Here’s how new RB Jeremy McNichols could help in 2022.

Almost immediately after releasing running back, Trey Edmunds, Pittsburgh Steelers signed another player to compete during training camp. Upon Edmunds’ release, I predicted that the team would look to fill the vacant spot on the 90-man roster with another running back — a veteran with more to offer on offense.

On Tuesday, the Steelers did exactly that. The official team account confirmed that Pittsburgh has signed former Tennessee Titans running back, Jeremy McNichols:

Steelers were quick to pull the trigger on the free agent running back after freeing up room on their roster. Interestingly, McNichols doesn’t project anything like Najee Harris for Pittsburgh.

McNichols is entering his sixth season in the NFL. During his first three seasons, he spent time as a member of the 49ers, Colts, and Jaguars, but he appeared in just 4 games over this span. McNichols eventually found a home in Tennessee in 2020, though there weren’t a lot of touches to go around with Derrick Henry rightfully hogging the workload in the backfield.

However, in 2021, when Henry went down for half the season, we got a pretty good look at McNichols in extended action. Though he wasn’t credited with a start, McNichols appeared in 14 games.

McNichols offers a niche Steelers offense has been missing

As a runner, Jeremy McNichols wasn’t overly impressive last year. He managed just 156 yards on 41 carries (3.8 ayrds per carry) and failed to chip in a single score on the ground. However, the receiving game is a different story.

Despite his part-time role in Tennesse, McNichols was able to reel in 28 receptions on 38 targets for 240 yards, via ESPN stats. His 8.6 yards per reception would have tied JuJu Smith-Smith-Schuster last year and topped Pat Freiermuth’s numbers from 2021. This is where McNichols will have a chance to shine.

The Steelers tried to rely heavily on Najee Harris in the passing game last season, but the results weren’t what we would have liked them to be. Despite earning 94 targets, Harris managed just 5.0 yards per target and was credited with 7 dropped passes (7.4 percent drop rate).

McNichols, on the other hand, averaged a respectable 6.3 yards per target in the passing game and had a significantly lower drop rate (just two drops on the season). While he graded out poorly as a blocker, the former Titans running back finished with the 11th-highest receiving grade last season among all NFL running backs, according to Pro Football Focus.

Listed at 5’9” and 205 pounds, McNichols has a short, compact frame, but there’s a bounce in his step and his top-end speed is at least respectable enough to carve out significant gains every once in a while. This is a trait Najee Harris and Benny Snell both lack.

McNichols won’t do a lot of damage on the ground, but if he sticks around, he could be an asset in the passing game thanks to his soft hands and natural feel after the catch.

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It was interesting that the Steelers didn’t sign a running back more in the mold of Najee Harris — a big player who could carry the load if Najee goes down. The Jeremy McNichols signing could give the Steelers a niche on offense they didn’t have in 2021.