The NFL season may not be over, but for all intents and purposes it is for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though there are eight games remaining on the schedule, the Steelers’ front office should already have an eye on the 2014 NFL draft.
A lack of talent on the roster is one of the reasons that the Steelers only have two wins at the midpoint of the season. However, one area that appears to have a bright future is the running back position.
As I wrote last week, Le’Veon Bell has the look of the running back of the future for Pittsburgh.
He continued to show why against the New England Patriots; he finished with 20 touches for 139 yards, including his longest rush (25 yards) and reception (29 yards) of the season.
For the season, Bell has 80 carries for 282 yards and three touchdowns. He has added 17 receptions for 147 yards in the passing game.
Bell should see his opportunities increase as the season progresses, but what will things look like beyond this season? The Steelers have no long-term depth signed behind him. Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling are all free agents (via Spotrac) following the 2013 season, and it's doubtful that any of them will be brought back.
Dwyer was released prior to the start of the season only to be re-signed following Stephens-Howling's ACL tear (via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, subscription required). Jones had been acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles for linebacker Adrian Robinson (via Scott Brown of ESPN).
Neither Jones nor Dwyer has been a significant part of the Steelers’ offense so far in 2013. Jones has 39 touches for 171 yards, while Dwyer has 25 touches for 133 yards, including the team’s longest run of 30 yards.
Beyond their lack of presence in the offense, neither back offers much as a dynamic threat. Bell is a power runner, and the Steelers have used Jones and Dwyer as power backs as well. They need something more to complement Bell.
That can either be another running back to help carry the load or a change-of-pace back.
It was expected that Stephens-Howling was going to be this type of back when the Steelers signed him, but a torn ACL derailed his season. It will be tough for him to come back next year and perform at the high level that the Steelers would need from him.
Another reason that the Steelers need to address the position is because they have not used their running backs as workhorses in recent years.
Last season, only one of the Steelers’ top rushers (Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall) had more than 20 carries in a game. That was Redman, who had 26 carries for 147 yards against the New York Giants.
That trend has held true in this season. Bell is leading the team in rushing attempts with 16 per game. If he averages between 15 and 20 carries a game, the Steelers will need a second running back to help carry the load.
Rather than re-sign one of their current backs, the Steelers should move in another direction. They are 2-6 right now in part because they are loyal to their own players. Pittsburgh needs an infusion of talent to help reinvigorate the ground game.
A two-back attack has been key for some of the top rushing teams in the league.
Through the first nine weeks of the season, six of the top 10 rushing teams have two running backs with at least 40 carries.
If the Steelers want to truly commit to the ground game, they will invest in a second running back early on in the draft. This could mean spending another second-round selection on a player such as Bishop Sankey of Washington or Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin.
Sankey is currently third in the nation with 1,162 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He has an impressive 5.8 yards per carry and is the top running back prospect at CBS Sports.
Gordon is CBS Sports' third-ranked prospect and has 1,074 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging a stunning 8.7 yards per carry. He, like Sankey, has shown the ability to produce. And he can break the big play; he's got an 80-yard run this season.
Of course, a pick that high would be a significant investment for a team with so many holes. Instead, the Steelers could find quality later in the draft such as Carlos Hyde, who is projected to go in the fifth or sixth round.
Hyde fits the prototypical mold of a Steeler running back with his size (242 pounds) and shifty feet. More importantly, he runs with good power and can break tackles when running between the tackles.
He’d fit the role of a power back well and be an upgrade over Jones and Dwyer supported by his upside and production this season, averaging 7.3 yards per carry.
But is a power back what the Steelers need in the new NFL? They may look at adding a potentially elite playmaker, and the one back who will stand out is De'Anthony Thomas.
Thomas has been limited due to injuries this season, but he still has potential to be a big-time playmaker at the next level. Over his career, Thomas has averaged nearly 8.4 yards per carry and has scored 25 touchdowns.
In addition to his running ability, Thomas has been a threat as a receiver with 97 career receptions. He would fill the role of change-of-pace back quite nicely.
As tempting as it would be to add another workhorse to the stable, it is just not how offenses succeed today. The Steelers need a dynamic threat in their backfield. They need a player who can catch the ball like a receiver and explode for big plays on the ground.
After failed attempts with Chris Rainey and Stephens-Howling, maybe the third time will be a charm for the Steelers to find a big-play back. It may not be their biggest need, but this will help the offensive catch up to the league’s best.
All stats via ESPN.com and NFL.com.