The Pittsburgh Steelers’ rushing attack was a major disappointment in 2012 and contributed little to the team’s overall offensive output last season. The team went from averaging 4.4 yards per rush in 2011 (good enough for 10th place in the league) to putting up just 3.7 yards per carry last year (tied for the third fewest in the NFL). As a result of its struggles running the ball, Pittsburgh dropped from sixth to 31st in Football Outsiders’ rankings of rushing efficiency.
Injuries to the offensive line, along with ineffective play, certainly contributed to this steep decline in output. Steelers linemen missed more than 30 games due to various ailments in 2012. Without any consistency in the lineup, Pittsburgh’s front five struggled to open holes for the team’s running backs. In fact, the offensive line generated the sixth-fewest adjusted line yards (rushing yards resulting from line play) in the NFL.
However, Pittsburgh’s running backs should also bear considerable responsibility for the Steelers’ lackluster ground game.The Steelers’ backfield finished with the third-fewest yards gained between five to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and they also had the ninth-fewest yards gained on runs longer than 10 yards.
Former 1000-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall was injured and unproductive all season. In his absence, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer failed to produce consistently and proved incapable of seizing the starting spot.
With free-agent-to-be Mendenhall unlikely to remain with the team, and with neither Redman nor Dwyer emerging as the long-term answer, the Steelers will need an upgrade at the running back position in the offseason if the organization hopes to make the rushing attack a more viable weapon in 2013.
Picking up a running back via free agency is probably not a realistic option for the Steelers, even if the team were to overcome its traditional aversion to testing those waters. The front office would have to restructure contracts and possibly cut some popular veterans just to have a chance at re-signing one or two key players who will be free agents this year. Paying for a running back who is capable of stepping in as a starter would probably be impossible, even if the team wanted to pursue that option.
Fortunately, the 2013 NFL Draft will offer numerous opportunities to pick up a back with the potential to be a productive starter early in his career. Though this year’s draft class has no "can't miss" prospects at the position, it does boast more than a dozen college stars projected to be drafted between the second and sixth rounds.
Because nearly all of the potential selections have similarly eye-popping conventional stat lines, the backs that the Steelers target should depend more on areas likely to correlate with success in the NFL, such as physical attributes (size and speed), the ability to pick up yards when it matters most (such as when the team needs to run out the clock) and the durability necessary to withstand a 16-game regular season.
With that in mind, here are six college draft picks who would be the best options to step in as a feature running back for the Steelers in 2013, ranked in order from lowest to highest potential.
Side Note: The first two slides cover a pair big-name future draftees whom Pittsburgh should avoid.