Do the Pittsburgh Steelers Need to Draft a Running Back?
As far as backstories go for current NFL players, James Conner's has to be one of the best. As many may already know, Conner overcame stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma in college, went on to become a third-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft, and eventually had a breakout 2018 campaign during Le'Veon Bell's holdout.
But 2019 was a disappointing year for Conner -- and for anyone who drafted him in fantasy football. The young back went from averaging 74.8 rushing yards per game in 2018 all the way down to 46.4 per game in 2019, while scoring eight fewer touchdowns in 2019, as well. It was a rough season for Conner -- who also struggled with injuries multiple times throughout the year -- so it's understandable that The Athletic's Ed Bouchette "fully expects" the Steelers to draft a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The question is -- should they?
A Long Look at the 2019 Season
Before we delve into what the Steelers' 2020 draft could hold, it's important to take stock of what their 2019 season actually revealed. And by far the most important takeaway from that season is that their offense was beyond dreadful without Ben Roethlisberger under center. Roethlisberger injured his elbow in just the second week of the season, and the Steelers' offense promptly fell apart afterwards.
Pittsburgh's backup quarterbacks simply did not have the juice to keep the offense afloat. JuJu Smith-Schuster -- who also dealt with injuries throughout the season -- put up career-worst marks across the board catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, neither of whom were able to crest 5.0 adjusted net yards per pass attempt.
Per numberFire's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back metric, which measures how many expected points a quarterback added to his team's expected points total per drop back, Rudolph and Hodges each cost their team expected points every time they dropped back to pass. As a result, the Steelers' offense ranked third-worst in total offensive yards in 2019 with just 4,428.
So it's understandable that last season Conner struggled to replicate his 2018 numbers -- the entire offense crumbled around him, rarely putting him in position to score and barely threatening defenses over the top. But when compared to the other running backs on the team, Conner was clearly the top dog.
Per numberFire's Rushing Success Rate metric, which measures how often a running back's rush attempts added positive value to their team's expected points total, Conner managed a surprisingly good 40.52% Rushing Success Rate last year -- for comparison, Christian McCaffrey finished with a 42.31% clip, though it came on a lot more volume -- while teammates Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels managed rates of just 37.96% and 34.85%, respectively.
According to PlayerProfiler.com's Dominator Rating metric, which determines how much of a team's total offense a back was responsible for in the games he played, Conner's 31.7% mark ranked fifth among all qualifying backs. He just about carried the entire offense when he was healthy last year.
Which brings us to the only true concern Conner has on his on profile -- injuries.
Conner missed six regular season games in 2019 and another four in 2018 while dealing with a litany of injuries. Last year alone, he dealt with a quad contusion, an AC joint sprain, a quadriceps strain, a light ankle sprain, and a knee sprain. In 2018 he suffered another ankle sprain and a concussion, and in college he tore his MCL. It's certainly a concerning list of ailments, and if the Steelers truly do think they need to draft another running back to replace him, this is probably the reason why.
But can the Steelers afford to draft another back in 2020?
The Steelers' 2020 Draft Options
Even if the Steelers' front office feels they need to add another running back, they may not have the draft capital to do so. They made the then-head-scratching decision to trade their 2020 first-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose presence winded up more or less revolutionizing the team's defense and nearly dragged the squad to the playoffs. They have held onto to their second-round pick (slot 49) but don't pick again until the 102nd pick overall.
Finally, they still hold four additional picks outside of the third round -- the 124th, 135th, 198th and 232nd picks of the draft. It's not an overly impressive stash of picks, meaning the team will likely prioritize addressing their most glaring weaknesses.
As we've implied throughout the article, it is the Steelers' offense as a whole that requires the most attention from the front office this year. The Steelers' defense pressured opposing quarterbacks at the highest rate in the league (30.5% of drop backs) and allowed the third-lowest adjusted net yards per attempt with an impressive mark of 4.7. And somehow their rushing defense managed to simultaneously post the second-most expected points added by any rushing defense in the league with 63.09 points. The team will be bringing back most of players that helped them post such impressive numbers with the exception of defensive lineman Javon Hargrave, so it seems safe to assume the team's draft will lean heavily toward the offensive side of the ball.
With that in mind, the Steelers are currently listed at +104 to select an offensive player with their first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, per FanDuel Sportsbook. Considering how dominant the team's defense was a year ago and how abysmal their offense was, this seems like a bet to consider before the draft.
It seems reasonable to expect the team to select a backup quarterback at some point to push Rudolph and Hodges -- especially if they do not sign Cam Newton or Jameis Winston in free agency. It is also possible the team drafts an offensive lineman with either of their first two picks -- while they did grade out as Pro Football Focus' ninth-best O-Line in 2019, longtime starter Ramon Foster retired this offseason. The team seems to be content with their tight ends, restructuring Vance McDonald's contract and signing Eric Ebron in free agency. And while the team's wide receivers struggled in 2019, the trio of Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington are a solid, young corps of wideouts.
Considering all of this, the team could very easily see running back as a position of need. While they may not have many picks in the first few rounds, the Steelers' roster frankly doesn't have many glaring holes at the moment as long as Big Ben is healthy. This opens up the possibility of the team drafting a replacement for Conner with the 49th or 102nd pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, and if they opt to wait on a running back until later in the draft, they're almost guaranteed to at least look to upgrade over Snell and Samuels behind Conner.
The Steelers' roster doesn't have many weaknesses heading into the draft, and considering Conner's struggles to stay healthy, it seems reasonable to expect the team to start seeking out a possible replacement.
While Pittsburgh doesn't have many top-end picks this year, they do have picks in what has been something of a running back sweet spot in early mock drafts. Conner was still head and shoulders above his competition on the team a year ago, but the level of that competition almost necessitates that the team drafts at least one running back in April. We shouldn't be surprised if they do.