How Todd Haley Can Turn Dri Archer into a Versatile Star in Pittsburgh

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVJuly 10, 2014

The keys to Dri Archer's future in Pittsburgh can be found in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's past.
The keys to Dri Archer's future in Pittsburgh can be found in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's past.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Dri Archer in the third round of this year's NFL draft, offensive coordinator Todd Haley's fingerprints were all over the pick. 

Dating back to his time as the Arizona Cardinals' offensive coordinator and through his tenure with the Steelers, Haley has always had an interest in fast, hybrid receiver-running backs to add another dimension to his otherwise conservative schemes.

Looking back on the players that have cut the same mold for Haley's previous teams can give us some insight on how Archer can thrive for the Steelers. That begins with J.J. Arrington, who was already on the Cardinals' roster when Haley came in as offensive coordinator in 2007.

J.J. Arrington was Todd Haley's first experiment with a hybrid-style player.
J.J. Arrington was Todd Haley's first experiment with a hybrid-style player.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Prior to Haley's arrival, Arrington had 126 rushing attempts for 384 yards and 33 receptions for 197 yards in a two-year span. While still a running back under Haley's system, Arrington became even more involved in the passing game. He was also the Cardinals' primary kick returner from 2006 through 2008.

Though bigger than the 5'8", 179-pound Archer—Arrington was 5'9" and 214 pounds during the Haley years—Arrington provides the first clues to Archer's future duties in Pittsburgh.

Though billed as a running back, Arrington had almost as many receptions as rushes in both 2007 and 2008, with 26 and 31 rushes, respectively and 29 receptions each of those two years.

J.J. Arrington Under Todd Haley
YearSnapsSnap%Rush Att.Rush Yds.Rec.Rec. Yds.PRPR Yds.KRKR Yds.
via ESPN and Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

Of Arrington's 300 offensive snaps played (or 27.4 percent of the Cardinals' total offensive snaps) in 2007 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 26 were as a running back and 193 were as part of the passing game.

In 2008, he played 286 snaps (or 28.6 percent) with a similar breakdown of 37 as a running back and 199 in the passing game. Both years he had negligible participation in pass protection.

What's notable about Arrington the receiver is where he caught most of his passes. According to Pro Football Focus' charting, all 29 of his receptions in 2007 were caught behind the line of scrimmage to nine yards beyond it, with 17 coming in negative yardage. That trend repeated in 2008.

In total, Arrington had 57 rushes during Haley's tenure, for 265 yards and 58 receptions for 496. He also had 1,174 kick-return yards with two touchdowns. Though Arrington was a smaller player who played barely a third of all offensive snaps in those two seasons, Haley had managed to turn him into a true hybrid offensive weapon and give him a role he could play well. 

At first, Jamaal Charles seemed destined for Haley's hybrid role.
At first, Jamaal Charles seemed destined for Haley's hybrid role.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

This continued when Haley went to Kansas City to first serve as the Chiefs offensive coordinator and then head coach. In 2009, Jamaal Charles was Haley's first hybrid target. Charles was drafted a year earlier, in 2008, and rushed 67 times for 357 yards with 27 receptions for 272 yards in his rookie season.

Under Haley, Charles' role expanded. He ran more—190 rushes for 1,120 yards in 2009—and he caught more passes—40 receptions for 297 yards. He played more than Arrington did in Arizona, on the field in 2009 for 62.6 percent of the Chiefs' offensive snaps, but for good reason—he was a superior all-around athlete.

But Haley had a plan, and not one that everyone agreed with. He operated with a running-back-by-committee attitude, with Charles splitting carries with Thomas Jones in 2010 despite Charles clearly being the superior back.

Dexter McCluster was the first Haley-style hybrid offensive player actually drafted by Haley.
Dexter McCluster was the first Haley-style hybrid offensive player actually drafted by Haley.Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Charles' snaps decreased to just 53.3 percent in 2010, but that didn't just owe to Haley's interest in using Jones. It was also a response to the team selecting Dexter McCluster in the second round of the 2010 draft.

McCluster was the first Haley-drafted, Haley-style hybrid player and provides the best blueprint for how Archer will be used in Pittsburgh. As a rookie, McCluster was on the field for 54 percent of the Chiefs' offensive plays and both carried and caught the ball. He also returned kickoffs and punts. 

In his first season, McCluster had 21 receptions for 209 yards, 18 carries for 71 yards, 13 punt returns totaling 202 yards and 26 kickoff returns for 527 yards. His role all over the field expanded in his second season, even though his snaps percentage dipped to 43.1 percent. He had 46 receptions for 328 yards, 114 rushes for 516 more, returned six punts for 65 yards and 25 kickoffs for 557.

Dexter McCluster Under Todd Haley
YearSnapsSnap%Rush Att.Rush Yds.Rec.Rec. Yds.PRPR Yds.KRKR Yds.
via ESPN and Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

McCluster fit a niche, one that was quickly becoming a hallmark of Haley's offensive scheme. Like Arrington in Arizona before him, McCluster's primary area to catch the football was in negative yardage or up to nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

He was a bubble-screen and sweep target, a fast player who could take the short passes and make gains—he had 190 yards after the catch (7.6 yards per reception) in 2010 and 301 (6.5 yards per reception) in 2011. And like Arrington, and now Archer, McCluster was small (5'8" and 170 pounds), but with a blistering speed and a reliability that drew Haley into giving him a versatile group of responsibilities.

It's easy to see how Haley preferred to use McCluster's versatility when looking at McCluster's numbers after Haley left for Pittsburgh in 2012. McCluster had only 12 rushing attempts in his first year without Haley and returned only two punts and no kickoffs. He was cast primarily as a receiver, instead.

Chris Rainey had McCluster's height, weight and speed but that's where the similarities stopped.
Chris Rainey had McCluster's height, weight and speed but that's where the similarities stopped.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In his first season with the Steelers, Haley tried to recreate the magic he had made with McCluster. As the drafting of Archer this year seems to have Haley's hallmark all over it, so did the Steelers' selection of a similarly-styled player, Chris Rainey, in Round 5 of the 2012 draft. 

Rainey, at 5'8" and 170 pounds, was a physical clone of McCluster. However, he wasn't McCluster's peer when it came to his on-field production or contributions. Rainey played only 14 percent of the Steelers' offensive snaps his rookie year and despite instability at the running back position, he had only 27 snaps as a rusher.

Rainey rushed 26 times for 102 yards and caught 14 passes for 60 yards. He was most effective as a returner, with three punt returns for 16 yards and 39 kickoff returns for 1,035 yards. Whatever promise he could have had in Haley's system was never realized—he was released the following offseason after an arrest.

Though Rainey looked the part of Haley's McCluster-style hybrid player, he couldn't walk the walk. The Steelers went through the 2013 season without a player with that kind of profile, but they addressed it again this May with the selection of Archer.

Odds are good that Archer will be more involved and make more of an impact in Pittsburgh than Rainey did before him. First, there's the fact that the Steelers used a third-round pick on him. Second, he's already been all over the field in minicamp and OTAs.

Archer spoke with August Fagerstrom of the Akron Beacon Journal earlier this month about his role in Pittsburgh. Though Archer isn't yet sure how he'll be used, he predicts he'll be on the field a lot: "It's going to be a big role, but I'm just going to do whatever I'm asked to do. Play receiver, play running back, helping special teams. Whatever they want me to do, I'm going to do it."

Dri Archer at Kent State
YearRush Att.Rush Yds.YPRRush TDRec.Rec. Yds.Rec. TDKRKR Yds.KR Avg.

That's certainly how Archer was used in college at Kent State. He rushed 325 yards for 2,342 yards in four years, with a career high of 1,429 in 2012, when he led the nation in yards per rush, at 9.0. He had 99 receptions for Kent State, totaling 1,194 yards. He also had 1,436 yards on 51 kickoff returns.

Fellow Steelers rookie, linebacker Ryan Shazier, described Archer as "lightning in a bottle." He added, "We've just got to try and get that lightning as much as possible." 

However, if Haley uses Archer as he did McCluster, don't expect him on the field for more than 40 percent of the Steelers' offensive snaps. Because of his unique size-speed combination, he's a third-down pass-catching back, a screen-and-sweep specialist and of course, an asset on special teams in the return game. 

But, if Archer truly fits the Haley mold, he'll make the most out of each snap and each touch he's given. Like McCluster before him, Archer is a role player. He represents but a facet of the Steelers' overall offensive game plan. However, he's a unique one. His on-field presence will be felt even if his presence on the field is limited.


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