PITTSBURGH – A forgotten position in recent years in the first round of the NFL draft, running back has seen a resurgence, highlighted by Dallas’ selection of Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick in 2016.
Elliott showed that young running backs can help turn around a team’s fortunes, leading the NFL with 1,631 yards and helping Dallas improve from a 4-12 finish in 2015 to 13-3 in 2016.
Elliott was the only running back selected in the first round of last year’s draft, but he was hardly the only one to make a positive impact.
The running back position is expected to get plenty of more attention in this year’s draft, which will be held Thursday through Saturday.
The Steelers have eight picks in the seven-round draft, including the 30th selection in the first round and two third-round picks.
With DeAngelo Williams having reached free agency and the Steelers showing no interest to re-sign a running back who turns 34 later this week, Pittsburgh will be in the market for a backup for Le’Veon Bell.
Veteran Knile Davis was signed in free agency as much for his kick returning skills as for his ability to carry the football. But he’s viewed more as competition for holdover No. 3 back Fitzgerald Toussaint than as a long-term backup to Bell.
Compounding the Steelers’ situation is Bell, who has missed time in each of his four seasons because of suspensions and injuries, had the franchise tag placed on him at the start of the offseason. Unless the Steelers can come to a long-term agreement with the All-Pro running back, they will face the choice of tagging him again or allowing him to test the free agent market at the end of the 2017 season.
This is considered a great draft to be in the market for a running back.
Three backs are getting first-round consideration: LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. All three are expected to be gone when the Steelers make their first pick.
But the cupboard will hardly be bare.
Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara is viewed as a solid second-round pick, and the group of Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, South Florida’s Marlon Mack, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, D’Onta Foreman of Texas, Wayne Gallman of Clemson, Jeremy McNichols of Boise State and Pitt’s James Conner should hear their names called before the end of the fourth round.
“What’s a little different (about this draft) is the depth of the running back position, which hasn’t been real deep in recent years,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “But it looks like this is shaping up to be a real strong running back draft class.”
Mixon could be the wildcard. He was suspended as a freshman for punching a female student in a restaurant but later welcomed back to the team. Video of the incident surfaced, however, earlier this year, raising the question of why he was permitted to return to the field.
Because of the incident, he was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in February. But some draft analysts consider him the best pure running back in this draft.
“He’s a top-10 pick without an issue,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. “He’s ahead of Leonard Fournette, without an issue. He’s ahead of Dalvin Cook, without an issue. He’s ahead of Christian McCaffrey, without an issue.
“With this issue, the bottom line is, ‘Where is he going to go?’ I thought he’d go in the third or fourth round. But, you start talking to people and they say, ‘No way.’”
The Steelers are unlikely to have Mixon on their final draft board.
Hunt, Mack, Gallman, McNichols and Conner will draw Pittsburgh’s interest in the middle rounds.
Gallman, Foreman and Conner are power backs, and Foreman has excellent speed. Hunt and McNichols are more all-around players. Mack is more of an outside runner who catches the ball well.
Any one would be a solid addition for the Steelers.
Conner is well known to Steelers fans, and his story of overcoming cancer while at Pitt has been inspirational to many. He wouldn’t mind staying in Pittsburgh and moving his locker across the building at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex the Panthers share with the Steelers.
In fact, he and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger share the same agent and have hung out this offseason.
“Just be yourself, have fun with it, enjoy the process,” Conner said of advice he’s received from Roethlisberger. “He knows I’ve overcome a lot. I know that too. (Ben’s a) phenomenal guy. I’m just blessed to have that relationship with Ben.”