The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most recent teams to take a running back in the first round, but that philosophy needs to end for good.
When it comes to the value of the running back position, I think the NFL is still years behind the curve. Just before the NFL trade deadline, the San Francisco 49ers traded a collection of draft picks for an injury-prone Christian McCaffrey, while others have received unreasonably high second contracts over the years.
I had hoped that the Pittsburgh Steelers had caught up with the times. The analytics suggest drafting a running back in the first round is a bad idea. However, Mike Tomlin had made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t care much for what analytics have to say.
Eventually, this resulted in the team spending the 24th overall pick on running back Najee Harris in the 2021 NFL Draft — a decision that I audibly opposed at the time. I was not fooled into believing that a slow running back with a good amount of tread off the tires was going to be a great pick for the Steelers. Najee was the 38th overall player on my draft board, and even that is probably far too high.
The 2022 season has been perhaps the greatest testament to why teams should not take running backs early in the NFL Draft. While Travis Etienne (who went one pick after Harris in 2021) has been outstanding this year, his rookie season was already lost due to an ACL tear. These injuries occur more often at the running back position than practically every position in the league because of the wear and tear on their bodies each play.
However, if we just look at the rest of the league, there isn’t much reason to suggest that taking running backs early is the way to go. While I would make rare exceptions for outstanding talent, I might go as far as to say that running backs shouldn’t even be selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.
The names mentioned above are just 14 of many this year alone that have made great impacts for their teams despite each of them being selected on day three of the NFL Draft. Some of these players have been among the most efficient running backs in the NFL. The list of these guys goes on.
Steelers must catch up with the times
Everybody knows that today’s NFL is a passing league. The best teams can’t get away with running the ball 30+ times and only throwing 17-20 passes per game. This is nothing like the same NFL we saw nearly 20 years ago when Ben Roethlisberger first came into the league.
While running games are important, running backs are not so much. Nick Chubb is one of the rare exceptions to the rule here, but even he is aided by arguably the league’s best offensive line.
I think Jonathan Taylor is a perfect example this year. The young All-Pro running back simply did not go from being the best RB in the NFL to being an average player in one year. The talent didn’t get worse; the offensive line and game plan did. That’s really what it comes down to.
Analytics show that quality running games really don’t translate to points well either. This still requires a great passing game. Even some of the most efficient running backs in the league this year (like Aaron Jones, Josh Jacobs, and Khalil Herbert) are on offenses that can’t score points. It’s far more important to be efficient through the air. What you get on the ground is just a bonus.
The Steelers are a prime example of a team stuck in the past that still manages to overvalue positions they shouldn’t. There’s a legitimate battle brewing in Pittsburgh’s backfield, and nearly every statistic (including DVOA and advanced metrics) shows that former UDFA Jaylen Warren has been the better football player.
At the end of the day, running backs don’t matter. What really matters is the offensive line and scheme around them. When these are good, nearly every NFL running back can look good. They are simply a dime a dozen and the Pittsburgh Steelers must re-think the way they evaluate the position in order to never waste an elite draft pick on a running back again.