The Pittsburgh Steelers have major decisions to make at the running back position in the coming months. A combination of salary-cap restrictions and a disappointing 2012 season from their backs has forced their hand and changes are coming.
With Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer presently restricted free agents and Rashard Mendenhall unrestricted, and the Steelers yet again well over the salary cap, there's little chance all three will be retained this offseason. And even if the Steelers had the cash, that would be no guarantee that any of the three would be safe—not after an 8-8 season that has the Steelers reconsidering nearly every position on the roster.
Redman, Dwyer and Mendenhall all dealt with injuries during the 2012 season and none looked like ideal, every-down starters when they were healthy. Dwyer had the most work, with 156 carries for 623 yards and two touchdowns. Redman had 110 carries for 410 yards and three scores, while Mendenhall had 51 rushes for 182 yards and no scores.
Chris Rainey contributed 26 carries for 102 yards and two touchdowns but was released in January following a domestic assault arrest, and Baron Batch had 25 carries for 49 yards and a score—not the kind of performance or usage that indicates the Steelers would want him to be their primary starter going forward.
Though it's not impossible that the Steelers let all three of their free-agent backs move on, chances are they will try to come up with a little bit of cash to keep one of them. There is some advantage to retaining Mendenhall, considering he's the closest thing the Steelers have had to a featured, every-down back, but his price tag, injury history and, of course, the way he behaved after his demotion on the roster don't bode well for that happening.
While Dwyer was the most impressive of the three in 2012, he's still not the answer, nor is Redman. Either of the two could be complementary backs in an overhauled run game, however, but keeping them both appears to be financially difficult.
As Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, if the Steelers offer both Dwyer and Redman original draft-round restricted free-agent tenders, it would cost them nearly $2.7 million total in 2013, which is a lot of money to tie up in the pair considering the rest of their financial issues. It's not out of the question that they do this, but Bouchette seems to think that the tender would only go to Redman.
Regardless, neither a trio of Batch, Dwyer and Redman nor a Batch-Redman duo is a workable solution for the Steelers. They need another option—someone shifty, fast and who can also catch passes, and someone that comes at the right price.
That "right price" modifier is of major importance and likely keeps free-agency options off the table. Besides, in looking at the list of restricted and unrestricted free-agent running backs, none really fit the mold of what the Steelers need.
Reggie Bush might, but Pittsburgh won't be able to pay him as well as another interested team, and the New Orleans Saints will probably give a tender to restricted free agent Chris Ivory, making him unattainable. Otherwise, it's a list of players no better than the backs they had in 2012.
For the Steelers to find what they're looking for, they'll need to turn to the draft. And they won't have to reach in the first or second rounds to find themselves a real difference-maker. This year's running back draft class is rife with talent in the third and fourth rounds, with plenty of players that will be at the scouting combine later in the week, allowing the Steelers to get another, close look at their options.
Eddie Lacy could be in the Steelers' first-round plans, however. Though taking a running back that early hasn't been a Steelers hallmark—they did it in 2008 with Mendenhall, but you have to go back to 1989 and Tim Worley to find the next time they've done so—Lacy might be the perfect combination of meeting a need while getting the highest player left on their draft board by the time they pick 17th overall. But that's still quite a price to pay for a back, especially considering how risky the position is in general.
To temper that risk-reward ratio, taking a running back later on would be the better move. Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle has good speed and elusiveness, but his pass-blocking abilities—particularly his savvy at blitz pickups—make him an intriguing second- or third-round prospect.
Stepfan Taylor out of Stanford also has great all-around skills as a blocker and a receiver that could provide the Steelers with a real, three-down running back. Fast and strong, the Steelers could get a third-round bargain if they like Taylor, though the combine might bring his draft stock up significantly higher.
The Steelers could also try their luck with another Florida Gator, Mike Gillislee, who emerged as the team's most productive back in 2012 after Rainey left for the Steelers. Like Rainey, Gillislee is fast, but unlike him, he isn't undersized and lacking power. One of the issues with Rainey in his lone season in Pittsburgh was that he couldn't do much but run; he simply wasn't strong enough to block. Gillislee, however, doesn't have that problem, which makes him more attractive as well as likely worthy of more than just a fifth-round selection like his predecessor.
Running back is a critical position for the Steelers this year. For Todd Haley's ball-control offense to really be effective, it needs a consistent running back to complement the passing game. It would likely be a major offseason priority for the team no matter its financial situation, because it simply cannot go into 2013 with the same collection of backs as last year and expect a different result.
No matter who the Steelers choose or how they handle their depth at the running back position, there is one clear mandate for the Steelers this year—fix it. They need to make the right decisions about their own free agents and they must bring on at least one back in the draft. Hitting a home run is not an option, it's a requirement.