Is 2023 finally the year for Steelers RB Anthony McFarland Jr.?

  • McFarland has drawn the short straw so far
  • 2023 could be the year he finally showcases his skills

Steelers, Anthony McFarland Jr.
Steelers, Anthony McFarland Jr. / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to talk about a player who has been robbed of opportunities early in his NFL career, look no further than Anthony McFarland Jr. When the Steelers spend a fourth-round draft choice on the Maryland product back in 2020, we assumed the speedster would be part of the plan in the backfield. That didn't turn out to be the case.

As a rookie, McFarland more or less sat from the bench and looked on as the team's RB3. While James Conner had earned the right to be the lead running back in 2020, McFarland looked on as a plodding Benny Snell Jr. carried the ball 111 times for just 368 yards, per Pro Football Reference.

After the 2020 season, McFarland really grabbed the short straw. The Pittsburgh Steelers spent the 24th overall pick on Najee Harris in the 2021 NFL Draft. Harris would go on to lead the league with 381 total touches. Meanwhile, McFarland combined for a measly 4 touches on the season.

Last year was much of the same, despite an impressive training camp and garnering an impressive 5.7 yards per carry during the preseason, he was released from the Steelers and forced to sign to the practice squad as they favored Snell as the RB3. McFarland dressed for just one game in 2022, and even though he carried the ball 6 times for 30 yards (5.0 yards per attempt) in Week 11, he did not see the field again for the rest of the year.

Could 2023 be the year for Anthony McFarland?

Anthony McFarland hasn't always been brilliant with his touches and there were a few times I recall that he flat-out missed the hole. However, 42 career carries in three seasons is hardly a worthwhile sample to judge a player.

Early in Steelers training camp this year, McFarland looks better than ever. Knowing that Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren sit firmly ahead of him on the roster, McFarland has been playing his heart out. His elite speed, burst, quickness, and change of direction have been evident at practices, and he has busted off some massive runs.

Obviously, what matters most is if McFarland is able to do this type of stuff in the game. But that's sort of hard to do when he has recorded just 9 total carries over the past two seasons. At the 2020 NFL Combine, McFarland ran an official 4.44 40-yard dash. Though he's a bit undersized at 5'8'' and 208 pounds, there is a role for a player with top-end speed and his skill set.

As a receiver at training camp, McFarland has looked excellent. Now entering his fourth year, McFarland is running crisp routes and easily creating separation against slower linebackers.
McFarland has been labeled one of the biggest winners early at Steelers training camp, but that doesn't guarantee him a role in 2023 (or even a spot on the roster, for that matter).

In the past, it has been a requirement for Pittsburgh's third-string running back to contribute regularly on special teams. Though McFarland has manned kick return duties in the past, he doesn't offer anything on special teams coverage units. This is something for Mike Tomlin and his staff to consider.

Regardless, McFarland looks to be firmly in the driver's seat for the RB3 role in Pittsburgh this year. With his elite deep speed, all he needs is a crease to make something happen. Let's hope he finally gets the chance to carve out a role on offense in 2023.