Thin Backfield Needs Depth

Jim Wexell continues his draft series by examining the Steelers' needs and wants at running back.

If you're wondering why the Steelers are looking at late-round and free-agent running back prospects such as Da'Rel Scott and Noel Devine, look at the bottom of the team's depth chart.

Still looking?

That's because there isn't one. The Steelers have only four backs on their roster: Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer.

And Moore is a soon-to-be 29-year-old free agent, so that leaves Redman and Dwyer as the backups to Mendenhall, and those two only have 61 career carries combined – or as many carries as Mendenhall had this past postseason.

Speaking of which, Mendenhall rang up 385 carries (counting the playoffs) last season, the third-most in team history. Only Jerome Bettis's 433 in 1997 and Barry Foster's 410 in 1994 rank higher.

Foster was 24 years old when he carried that load, and he lasted only two more seasons and never came close to his 1994 production. Bettis was 25 years old in 1997 and the 250-pounder continued on with four more 1,000-yard (and one 900-yard) seasons.

Bettis, of course, was a different breed. Mendenhall is built more like Foster and Willie Parker, who was run "until the wheels came off" with 321 carries in 2007. Parker didn't match that total in two subsequent seasons combined and, like Foster, was then finished with football.

There's no evidence, of course, that Mendenhall is due for the same precipitous fall-off. But he has only one solid backup in Redman, as Dwyer continues to learn the offense and understand blitz pickups.

The second-year power back could certainly use a spring of workouts to mature, but that's growing more unlikely with each passing day of the lockout. So the Steelers must add to their stable of backs this draft. And, really, there's no reason to rule out taking one in the first round.

Mark Ingram (5-9.1, 215, 4.66) could actually fall into their laps. But as noted in an earlier column, there's usually a good reason why first-round "fallers" keep on falling. In Ingram's case, it would likely be a knee that's potentially arthritic.

If Ingram falls to pick 31, you'll know that's the medical report and the Steelers would likely pass as well.

Could Ryan Williams (5-9.3, 212, 4.64) of Virginia Tech be the first back selected? It's possible, particularly if the team drafting him is looking for an explosive 21-year-old to complement its starter. In fact, Tomlin entered his first draft with the Steelers by saying he believes in using two starter-caliber backs.

If the first round is too rich for the Steelers, there are several mid-round backs who could add quality depth. Because of the two "pounders" already in line behind Mendenhall, a back with pass-catching ability would be the prescribed complement.

The best of the pass-catchers is probably Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray (5-11.5, 213, 4.43), who, with his tall running style, might actually have to move to receiver in the NFL. Murray caught 71 passes last season alone.

Shane Vereen (5-10.2, 210, 4.55) of Cal is another tremendous receiver out of the backfield, and Vereen, at 22, is a year younger than Murray and has more tread on his tires.

Jamie Harper (5-11.3, 233, 4.63), a junior from Clemson who won't turn 22 until September 11, has potential as an inside power runner and he also has soft hands and understands the passing game.

Dion Lewis (5-6.5, 193, 4.62) didn't run fast enough to justify his lack of size, but he's shown at Pitt that his ability exceeds his measurements. He's also an outstanding pass-catcher and won't turn 21 until Sept. 27.

As for the late-round backs with blazing speed – another complement needed in the Steelers' backfield – Scott (5-11, 211, 4.36) of Maryland was a Pennsylvania schoolboy 100-meter champ in 2007 (10.56) at Plymouth-Whitemarsh. He was labeled by Pro Football Weekly analyst Nolan Nawrocki as "an undersized, injury-prone fumbler with a track mentality." Devine (5-7.5, 179) of West Virginia is also undersized and injury-prone and could be available to the Steelers after the draft (and lockout).

Another back who's interested the Steelers this draft season is Eastern Washington speedster Taiwan Jones (5-11.5, 194), who'll run his 40 on April 14 and could go as high as the third round if his speed and character issues check out.

Value Board

Second round – Ryan Williams.

Third round – Shane Vereen.

Fifth round – Jamie Harper.

Sixth round – Da'Rel Scott.

Favorite late-round sleeper: Dion Lewis.


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