If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to improve upon the nightmare that was their running game last season, they’ll need an impact player to tote the rock. Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer were pedestrian at best, and Pittsburgh should look to bring in some new talent.
Fortunately, this year's draft features several candidates to be the next featured runner in the Steel City. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Eddie Lacy is generally regarded as one of the premier runners in this group, and for good reason. He looks like a Steelers running back, standing 5’10” and 220 pounds.
Lacy’s stats may have been inflated by running behind an outrageously talented offensive line, and his game is quite different than former teammate Trent Richardson’s. I don’t think that these facts should disqualify him as a Steelers possibility, though.
The Alabama product has quick feet and is a bruising runner. He is surprisingly agile in the open field, and he will utilize a spin move to leave defenders in the dust.
Lacy needs to work to improve as a pass-catcher, but he is an asset in protection. Contrary to popular belief, Alabama did run some zone plays for Lacy, and he was successful when the team ran the stretch and the stretch counter. He would not be a liability in the Steelers’ new zone-blocking scheme.
A little bit more lightning to Lacy’s thunder, Mike Gillislee is a big-play threat. He doesn’t have truly breathtaking speed, but it’s his approach to running that makes him so dangerous. Gillislee wants to make a huge impact on every single play, and his decisions on the field reflect that.
On the flip side, this tendency means that Gillislee will dance behind the line of scrimmage and force the cutback from time to time—something that Steelers fans disliked about Rashard Mendenhall.
Gillislee is a starter-type prospect that could be available in the middle rounds.
Along with Lacy, Giovani Bernard rounds out the top tier of running backs in this year’s draft.
Bernard is a multipurpose weapon, able to contribute as a runner, receiver and returner. He is 15 pounds lighter than Lacy, but he does have a compact build that he uses to run very close to the ground, similar to Ray Rice’s style of running. He has an outstanding feel for the game and for finding running lanes.
Ironically, it’s Bernard, not Lacy, who reminds scouts of Trent Richardson, and he’ll be one of the first backs taken off the board.
In recent years, it’s been the Philadelphia Eagles who have been more interested in Pittsburgh tailbacks than the Steelers. This could be the year that trend ends.
Before a 2011 ACL injury, Ray Graham racked up 734 rushing yards in just five games. He hasn’t looked exactly the same since the injury, but if he can get back to where he was, he’ll be a steal in the later rounds.
Graham is fast. I’m saying that post-injury and in the present tense. He reminds many scouts of LeSean McCoy when he uses jump cuts to get around defenders laterally.
If his knee checks out, I think he could be a starter in the NFL.
Joseph Randle has been moving up my draft board with every bit of his game tape I watch.
He is a burner who is a factor in the passing game and in pass protection. That sounds like a featured back to me, especially when you consider that he finishes runs with power.
Randle really shines in racking up yardage after contact, bouncing off of defenders and using his excellent balance to recover and continue on. He will need to really focus on ball security at the next level, but Randle is currently my front-runner to land in Pittsburgh.
With 924 carries at Wisconsin, Montee Ball is a workhorse. That’s a lot of tread taken off of his tires.
However, there are several reasons that Ball earned so many touches. He is a decisive, violent runner who also shows ability to change directions.
Ball has accumulated some impressive stats in his collegiate career, and he should pick up where he left off in the NFL, especially in the right situation.
Marcus Lattimore is another runner who I think would be a good backfield addition. He is an extremely talented player who has suffered some knee injuries in his college career.
Whichever team takes a chance on Lattimore will get a complete back who is also a high-caliber individual. If he didn’t have such serious injury concerns, Lattimore would be in the discussion to be a first-round running back.
He’s obviously an injury risk, but if the Steelers roll the dice on this special, every-down back, he could be a workhorse for them for years to come, barring additional injury.
The Cardinal is a prospect who does it all, if a bit unspectacularly. Stepfan Taylor doesn’t have elite speed, but he will not fumble and he can do some damage on the ground. His acceleration also makes up for his mediocre speed.
Stanford asked Taylor to protect the quarterback often, and he relished the opportunity to be physical with pass-rushers. He also looks passes into his hands, so he could be dangerous in the screen game if Pittsburgh decides to make that a staple of its offense.
He may have a problem selecting from among multiple running lanes, but that is a skill that he can develop in the NFL.
Le'Veon Bell is a trendy pick among Steelers fans, as he is a huge, punishing runner. He routinely takes defenders for a ride if they try to bring him down, and he runs right through arm tackles with his 6'2", 245-pound frame.
He is a middle-of-the-road prospect as a receiver and blocker, and he really needs to work on his conditioning and focus.
I see Bell as more of a committee member than a true featured back, but I would not be surprised at all if he landed in Pittsburgh on draft day.