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Predicting the 53: Pittsburgh Steelers Running Backs

The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers have too many running backs in their running back room and will have some tough decisions to make in the near future.
2020 Pittsburgh Steelers

The wacky NFL off-season continues and the Pittsburgh Steelers have their eyes set on getting back to the playoffs. With their Hall of Fame quarterback set to return and join their top-three defense, anything short of the playoffs would be a letdown. One area they will need to improve from last year is running the football. Ben Roethlisberger‘s return should help open the running game. There’s talent in the running back room, the talent just needs to come together better than it did last year. Here are predictions for which Pittsburgh Steelers running backs will find a spot on the 53-man roster.

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Running Backs: Who Makes the 53-Man Roster?

The Locks

There are four running backs that, barring any unforeseen circumstances, will be on the Steelers roster for week one. Two are returning from last year, the first of whom is James Conner. He has been a very good back for Pittsburgh and is a top-15 running back in the NFL when healthy. It’s no secret though that Conner has dealt with injury problems so far in his young career. He has played in just 37 of a possible 48 games so far in his career and missed six games last year. But when Conner is healthy, he is a well-rounded back. He’s Pittsburgh’s best runner, by far their best in pass protection, and their best receiving back, too. Along with that, he’s their best tackle-breaking ball carrier. No controversy, Conner will be on the roster in week one.

Benny Snell is the other returning back who showed a lot of promise in his rookie season. Snell had his number called a lot last year due to Conner’s missed time and was very successful. His numbers won’t blow you away, but consider this: Snell faced the highest percentage of loaded boxes of all NFL running backs last season. With an improved passing game this year, more opportunities should be opened up for Snell. If he can become more of a threat out of the backfield, Snell has a really good shot to be the featured back of the future if the team moves on from Conner.

Anthony McFarland was a surprise pick by the Steelers in the fourth round of the draft, but the logic makes sense. The team has a solid backfield, but they clearly lack one thing: home run playmaking ability. McFarland provides that and then some. The former Maryland running back has serious speed and can take one to the house on any given play. He wasn’t used much as a receiving back in college but definitely has the ability to be one. Don’t be surprised if he’s the kick returner to start the season, too. He’ll definitely need to improve in pass protection, but that can be worked on. His high ceiling makes McFarland a very intriguing player and the team will look to get him a healthy number of touches.

Don’t Forget the Fullback

There’s one more running back who’s a lock to make the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. Derek Watt was a surprising, but very pleasing addition to the team in the off-season. If they’re really looking to get their running game back on track, Watt should see a decent number of snaps on the offensive side of the ball. He is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. But even if the team doesn’t use a fullback much, they’ll still get their money’s worth with Watt. Last year, he was tied for the NFL lead in tackles on special teams. Pittsburgh’s special teams units struggled last year, and Watt will be a welcome addition to the team in that regard. No matter what his role is, Watt will be a team player and perform to the best of his ability. It’s a trait that runs in the Watt family.

The Bubble

There are three other running backs who will be competing for what is likely just one more spot. The first is Jaylen Samuels, a once-promising running back who didn’t have much production in the running game last year. Following a game against the New England Patriots in his rookie season, fans had high hopes for Samuels as a future featured back. Instead, it now seems that his role is just as a receiving back. He has reliable hands and racks up receptions, but doesn’t make plays with the ball in his hands. Samuels doesn’t break many tackles and struggles in pass protection, but is a versatile player who can give the team several different looks on offense.

Kerrith Whyte played well after being signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the middle of last season. There is one major problem working against him, though. Whyte is a very similar player to McFarland. Undersized with good agility and elusiveness, and a home run threat. It’s hard to say if the team will be interested in using two roster spots on players with such similar skillsets. Make no mistake about it though, Whyte will make the decision a tough one.

Trey Edmunds was on the active roster last year but didn’t do much in the running game. He had 22 total carries for 92 yards, 45 of which came on one run. Other than that, Edmunds main role was on special teams, an area that he played quite well. In fact, he had an interception on special teams last year, matching his brother Terrell Edmunds’ career total of one interception (the problem is that the latter is a safety and has played in all 32 games of his career). Nonetheless, Trey’s path to the 53 man roster is through special teams. If he is kept, it will be clear that the team is looking to improve in all four phases of special teams.

Prediction: Conner, Snell, McFarland, Samuels, and Watt are all kept on the 53 man roster while Edmunds and Whyte are signed to the practice squad.

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