After a season in which the Pittsburgh Steelers, once among the league's rushing elite, averaged only 96.1 yards per game (good for 26th in the NFL according to NFL.com), the front office and coaching staff have decided to completely blow up their previous backfield arrangements.
Rashard Mendenhall, the team's former starter, was allowed to walk in free agency and signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals to reunite with former Pittsburgh offensive boss and new Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians.
Part-time starters Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman were restricted free agents and were tendered contracts, but neither is guaranteed a roster spot when the music stops at the end of the preseason.
So what exactly is the ideal running back situation for the Steelers in 2013? Here's a look.
Approaching the Internal Options
What to do with Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman is a hot topic around the Steel City. Opinions vary on Dwyer, who was productive at times and finished with 623 yards on 156 carries, good for four yards per carry.
Redman finished with 410 yards on 110 carries (3.7 yards per carry). The problem was that neither player found a way to break off a big play with any consistency and combined to score only four touchdowns.
Both will get an opportunity in camp to prove that a new blocking scheme installed by Jack Bicknell, Jr., the team's new line coach, will make all the difference. If they can't show that, they may both be sent packing.
Ideally, Dwyer will earn a roster spot either as the starter or as part of a backfield tandem. Redman may have already played his final game in Pittsburgh as he seemed to have fallen out of favor by the end of the 2012 season.
Instead, they have entertained former Arizona Cardinals' starter and Ohio State star Beanie Wells. Wells, however, has a lot of injury-related questions surrounding him and his knee may not hold up at his next stop.
If Pittsburgh decides to pass on Wells, they should probably stay away from any other free-agent running back options. Running backs hitting free agency are usually either ineffective or used up by their previous team.
With limited salary cap space to devote to anything besides building through the draft, Pittsburgh would do better to save the money and let both Wells and the other free agent runners head to other teams.
The ideal way to build any successful NFL team for a long period of contention is through the annual draft of college players.
Pittsburgh has struggled to find success in drafting running backs. They've swung and missed on Rashard Mendenhall, Tim Worley and Walter Abercrombie over the years. This time, it is imperative that they find their next ball carrier from among the many options in this year's draft class.
As far as early-round options go, Eddie Lacy and Montee Ball are the best fits for a team that hasn't had a powerful runner since Jerome Bettis last fired up the bus in Super Bowl XL.
Ideally, Pittsburgh would nab one of those two runners or take an injury flier on Marcus Lattimore. Then, if they've found a way to accumulate extra draft picks from their one-per-round, they could pick up Pittsburgh runner Ray Graham or another player to fill out the backfield.
What Opening Day 2013 Should Look Like
The ideal opening day roster for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the running back position would look something like this:
Montee Ball, Jonathan Dwyer, Ray Graham, Isaac Redman
Ball would be the starter and could carry the ball 20-25 times per game. Dwyer and Redman would be versatile backups that could step in on third downs (a Redman specialty) or as a change of pace (where Dwyer might be at his best).
Graham, a second rookie, would be a good player near the goal line and in short yardage situations. He's not a big back, but he's brutish when he runs the ball and could bull his way into the end zone or across the line to gain.
A backfield like that would be much more versatile and effective than the Mendenhall, Dwyer, Redman, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey one that Pittsburgh utilized in 2012.
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