Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Running Backs

Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…

RUNNING BACKS

Likely Roster Spots: 4-5

Projected Starter: Rashard Mendenhall

Key Training Camp Battles: Jonathan Dwyer vs. Mewelde Moore vs. Isaac Redman for No. 2 TB; Moore vs. Mendenhall for 3rd-Down Back; Frank Summers vs. Sean McHugh vs. D.J. Johnson vs. Demetrius Taylor for FB duties; Dwyer vs. Summers vs. Redman vs. McHugh vs. Justin Vincent for 1-2 roster spots; Stefan Logan vs. players from other positions for spot on 53-man roster.

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (5) Mendenhall, Moore, Dwyer, Summers, McHugh

Analysis: The Steelers went with the take the “best player available” philosophy in making Rashard Mendenhall the 23rd overall selection of the 2008 NFL draft.

At the time, Pittsburgh had an above-average starting tailback in Willie Parker, running back is a position where teams – particularly the Steelers – can find great value later in drafts, and the average career of an NFL tailback (2 -3years) is so short that it makes little sense to take a tailback in the first round unless he would start as a rookie and fills a major need.

Finally, there was great trepidation in tabbing the Illinois tailback, since nothing quite epitomizes NFL busts better than Big Ten tailbacks.

As is often the case in the first round, the Steelers made the right move. Mendenhall’s rookie season was a wash. He had fumbling problems throughout the preseason and Ray Lewis destroyed his shoulder on a Monday night, ending his rookie season after four games and a measly 99 yards rushing.

However, that changed last year. After replacing Parker as the starting tailback early in the year, the 225-pound Mendenhall exhibited a combination of power and speed not seen among a quality Pittsburgh running back since at least Walter Abercombrie and possibly Franco Harris.

While both outstanding backs, Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis lacked speed, wheras as scatbacks like Amos Zeroue and Parker had little power in comparison to Mendenhall.

The term “quality” precludes 1989 1st-round pick Tim Worley, who may have been the physically most gifted Steeler back ever but ended up one of the Steelers’ biggest draft busts ever due to injuries, a propensity to fumble and problems off the field.

Despite averaging an impressive 4.6 yards per carry and rushing for 1,108 yards, Mendenhall was still plagued by bouts of inconsistency last season. He mostly cured his rookie “fumbleitis,” but had only three games rushing for more than 100 yards and just six games rushing for 80 or more yards.

While he was brilliant in nationally-televised wins against San Diego (165 yards rushing and 2 TDs) and Denver (155 yards rushing), Mendenhall rushed for just 273 yards against division opponents.

The Steelers need more consistent play from Mendenhall this fall, particularly since they allegedly plan to commit more to the run.  However, that will be more difficult without injured offensive tackle Willie Colon, and the loss of playmakers Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger (for 4-6 games) from the Steelers’ offense.

After Mendenhall, the Pittsburgh running back depth chart is in complete flux, since the Steelers made no attempts to resign Parker, who was no longer “Fast” in 2009, following four solid seasons as a starter.

Mewelde Moore has been a wonderful, inexpensive free agent pickup who has aided the Steelers in multiple facets over the last two years. Moore is a quality third-down back, a capable tailback who can grind out tough yards when needed, and also offers a set of dependable hands on punt returns.

Moore is the favorite to be the third-down back again, although the Steelers would like to use Mendenhall more in that role as well, since Mendenhall has solid hands, more breakaway speed, and has improved tremendously in pass protection.

The veteran Moore is also a candidate for the No. 2 tailback spot. But Steeler fans would love to see rookie Jonathan Dwyer claim that job with a strong preseason. It was somewhat of a surprise not to see the Steelers take a tailback in the first 3-4 rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft.

Turns out, they got a talent of that quality in the 230-pound Dwyer in the 6th round. Dwyer entered his junior season at Georgia Tech with a first-round grade, fell to a second-round pick during the season, and then was projected by some as low as the third-round after running pedestrian 40 times and concerns over his instincts as an NFL tailback since he played fullback in Tech’s triple-option offense over his last two seasons of college.

Dwyer, however, was highly productive in his three seasons with the Yellow Jackets, rushing for 3,226 yards and 35 TDs. It was shocking to see him still available in the 6th round. Steeler fans, though, should be cautious in projecting much from a rookie 6th-round pick. Still, Dwyer is the Steelers second most talented tailback candidate behind Mendenhall.

Dwyer may have to beat out Isaac Redman for a roster spot, although there is a chance they both could stick. Redman was the Steelers best running back in the 2009 preseason, but was still cut and kept on the practice squad most of his rookie season. Redman may also be able to play some fullback and is at his best in goal-line situations.

If he does not make the 53-man roster, the Steelers will likely try to sign Redman to their practice-squad again. Former LSU star Justin Vincent, also on the practice squad last season, is another roster candidate, albeit more of a long shot.

Trepidation on projecting the immediate impact of Dwyer is warranted upon remembrance of the Steelers drafting Frank Summers out of UNLV in the 5th round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

Many Steeler fans, including myself, thought Summers was a major draft steal who would solve the Steelers’ goal-line and short-yardage problems at tailback, and had the potential to emerge as the No. 2 tailback as a rookie.

Instead, he was clearly outplayed by Redman at tailback in training camp, moved fulltime to fullback, and made the roster more on potential than preseason production. Summers was abysmal as both a lead blocker and on special teams for two games last year before becoming inactive for week No. 3 and then mysteriously placed on IR for the rest of the season.

Hopefully, that quasi-redshirt year will result in a much-improved Summers at fullback this fall, although I would still love to see the “Tank” get a shot at tailback in short-yardage situations. Sean McHugh, who also was on IR in 2009, and D.J. Johnson are both TE/FB hybrids, and both are probably better lead-blocking fullbacks than Summers.

Although Johnson and McHugh are battling for the No. 3 TE spot, both could theoretically make the roster if one wins the FB duties when offensive coordinator Bruce Arians actually elects to use a fullback, which is not often enough.

My surprise roster projection is that McHugh and Johnson both make the final 53, in large part because of their versatility and ability to play special teams. However, if the Steelers sign Flozell Adams or Chester Pitts to aid a weak offensive line, or an injury keeps a star player out for a week or two and thus creates a depth problem, McHugh may be the first person to be cut from the 53 I am projecting for the opening-day roster.

Moreover, I freely admit that projecting Johnson, McHugh and Summers to all make the roster appears illogical and unlikely. My hope is that McHugh is the fullback, Johnson a No. 3 TE who plays in 2-TE short-yardage sets, and Summers becomes a short-yardage specialist at tailback. That could be Pittsburgh’s best goal-line lineup, although none of the three played those spots last year.

An intriguing player to watch in training camp will be 273-pound rookie free agent fullback Demetrius Taylor, who played on the defensive line at Virginia Teach. More than likely, Taylor’s best bet is to impress enough to secure a spot on the practice squad and then battle for a full-time roster spot as the FB in 2011.

Although listed as a running back, Stefan Logan is almost exclusively a return specialist. He is likely batting rookie 6th-round pick Antonio Brown for a roster spot. Logan is a quality return man, but Brown adds skill as a serviceable NFL receiver as well. However, Logan can still stick on the roster by simply proving himself  as clearly the Steelers’ best option on kick and punt returns like he did in the 2009 preseason.

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