Neal Coolong will go over all 18 positional units on the Steelers and rank them in terms of priority this offseason.
Each player on Pittsburgh's roster in 2007 will be evaluated leading up to the start of the free agency period on March 3, based on the Steelers' need to address that position with a change at starter, a free-agent pickup or a draft choice.
14. Running back
Willie Parker, fifth season; Najeh Davenport, seventh season; Gary Russell, second season; Carey Davis, second season; Dan Kreider, ninth season; Billy Latsko (practice squad), second year; Verron Haynes, seventh year.
Clearly, Parker (the league's leading rusher through 15 weeks) showed he's more than just a speed back. The Steelers primarily used Parker to pound through the middle of the defense, and while he only averaged 4.1 yards per carry, he was second in the NFL in carries for 20-plus yards with 11.
While he broke his leg against St. Louis in Week 16, Parker should rebound and be ready for 2008. The question then centers around the stability of Parker's backups.
Davenport filled in for Parker at St. Louis, putting the first 100-yard rushing game on the underrated Rams run defense. He basically disappeared against Baltimore in Week 17, and he wasn't much of a factor against Jacksonville in the Steelers' first-round playoff loss (16 carries for 25 yards). He did have two touchdowns.
Much of the perceived problems with Pittsburgh's rushing game in 2007 were attributable to the offensive line. The Steelers only rushed for nine touchdowns in '07, much of that the fallout from their desire to throw the ball inside the red zone (the tight ends had 11 touchdown catches). Do the Steelers have enough faith in undrafted second-year player Gary Russell? While he had an outstanding preseason, he didn't make much of the opportunities he had toward the end of the regular season. The offensive line was pretty beat up by that point, so Russell may get a pass on his lack of quality statistics (seven carries, 21 yards).
Considering the lack of a quick option behind Parker, and the recent NFL trend of a dual-priority backfield, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Steelers looking for a speed demon on Day 2 of the draft in April. Houston's Anthony Aldridge is said to run in the sub-4.3 range, and he has return ability, another Steelers need this offseason.
Haynes was signed only to provide depth; he isn't likely to return. Veteran FB Dan Kreider lost his starting job to the more versatile Carey Davis at the start of his season, and he was placed on the IR at midseason. Kreider, the Steelers' starting fullback on the '05 Super Bowl-winning team, is a free agent who is unlikely to return. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Baltimore look into picking him up.
Latsko has one year of practice squad eligibility remaining, but with the youth already in place in the Steelers' backfield, it doesn't seem that he'll make the active roster. But, considering the amount of injuries running backs suffer, he could wind up on a game-day roster or two at some point next season.
Ben Roethlisberger, fifth season; Charlie Batch, 11th season; Brian St. Pierre, sixth season.
Roethlisberger had arguably the best season of any Steelers QB in franchise history. Clearly, he's the unquestioned starter, but Batch is getting up in age, and St. Pierre is a free agent. The Steelers might be wise to explore a young third-stringer and groom him to assume Batch's role upon his retirement.
Basically, they are going to be looking for another Brian St. Pierre. Batch, barring unforeseen circumstances, will remain the backup, and a rookie will follow him as the team's game-day emergency QB.
The Steelers tried to find this, drafting Omar Jacobs in 2006, but he failed to beat out St. Pierre and was cut in training camp that year. Look for them to find a third-string QB on the second day of the draft, thus leaving St. Pierre in another jersey in 2008.