Steelers training camp: Battle for backup running back is still wide open

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Mataeo Durant (40). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Mataeo Durant (40). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a workhorse back in Najee Harris, but the battle to be the team’s primary backup is wide open entering training camp.

This is the beginning of a new era in Pittsburgh. As Ben Roethlisberger and several other key contributors say goodbye to the facility, the competition is heating up at several positions at the start of Steelers training camp.

At wide receiver, it will be interesting to see which players will prove to stick around following cut-downs. Likewise, the interior defensive line has too many bodies and not enough mouths to feed. One of the deepest positions on the team could be forced to let go of talent they wish they could keep.

The same cannot be said for the running back position. Recently, Pittsburgh signed veteran journeyman, Jeremy McNichols. But behind Najee Harris, the competition for the backup running back gig has never been more wide open. Returning from last year to throw their hats in the ring are Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland — two backs who failed to make any sort of splash in 2021.

These two will be joined by a pair of undrafted rookies in Mataeo Durant and Jaylen Warren. Trey Edmunds — a veteran special teams player who has dressed for just 6 games since 2019 –was recently released by the team to make room for McNichols.

Because this group is so unspectacular on paper, it’s entirely possible that the Steelers look to add a running back from the waiver wire this year once NFL teams start making cuts. However, if that doesn’t happen, one of the four aforementioned running backs is likely to be Najee Harris’s primary backup for the 2022 season.

Benny Snell may earn Steelers backup RB job again

Benny Snell’s efficiency has gone from bad to worse since entering the league in 2019. Still, there’s something about the former fourth-round pick that Mike Tomlin seems to like. He’s a ‘Benny Snell Football’ guy for some reason.

The 2021 season was Snell’s worst to date. The young running back managed just 36 carries that went for 98 yards. His dismal 2.7 yards per carry average and inability to help out in the passing game have left fans wondering what he’s even doing on this roster. Sadly, I would still call him the frontrunner for the RB2 job in Pittsburgh at this point in time.

Snell has a thick build to run between the tackles and doesn’t have much of an issue hanging onto the football — two traits that Tomlin loves. However, his complete lack of speed and burst should have the Steelers looking elsewhere.

Who is the best option for RB2 in Pittsburgh?

Based on what I’ve seen in three years from Benny Snell, he certainly wouldn’t be my first choice. However, in order for someone else to step up and earn the backup job behind Najee Harris, they are going to have to prove themselves at Steelers training camp.

Anthony McFarland has been just as unspectacular early in his career. I was shocked to see the former fourth-round pick touch the ball a grand total of 4 times in 2021. When McFarland does see the field, he misses holes too often. However, there’s no denying that he has a second gear that neither Snell nor Harris possesses.

The player who really has me intrigued is undrafted rookie, Mataeo Durant. At 5’11” and 196 pounds, the former Duke product is a bit on the light side, but he averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry during a productive college career.

Durant also has 4.43 speed to break off chunk plays for the Steelers. His skill set would make for a nice one-two punch as a backup to Harris.

Undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren is perhaps the biggest longshot candidate of the group. The former Oklahoma State product has a compact frame at 5’8” and 207 pounds but elected not to run the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day.

Meanwhile, Jeremy McNichols has some experience as the sixth-year player earned a role on the Titans last season. However, he’s not a great runner between the tackles and doesn’t offer a lot of special teams value. He may be able to stick around with a niche as a pass-catcher (a la Jaylen Samuels), but I don’t really view him as an RB2.

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Obviously, we want the best man to win out here, but we may not know who that is until later in training camp. Ideally, it would be nice to have a true change-of-pace back like McFarland or Durant who could add more speed and explosive plays to the Steelers offense. It will be interesting to see which running back separates themselves from the pack this summer.