Steelers Draft 2012: Running Backs

With Rashard Mendenhall's injury in the final year of his contract, a stop-gap draft pick could turn into a long-term solution. Part II of Jim Wexell's draft series.

The Steelers don't expect to have rehabbing Rashard Mendenhall for this entire season, but Kevin Colbert has said the team will keep him through the final year of his contract when they could instead save $2.33 million by releasing him.

They must want to extend him.

Or, they're waiting to see if they'll come up with another running back in the draft.

Not that Trent Richardson will fall to them in the first round. Nor is it likely they'll use a second-round pick on Doug Martin, Lamar Miller or David Wilson.

No, they're merely looking to find someone who can complement Isaac Redman and replace Mewelde Moore as a third-down back, someone like Isaiah Pead of the University of Cincinnati.

"I've talked to the Steelers a lot," Pead said at the combine in February. "And behind the scenes, from what I've been told, if word of mouth means anything, the Steelers have spoken highly of me. And I'm happy for it."

Pead grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where his grandfather played Little League ball with Archie Griffin. Pead eventually broke all of Griffin's prep records at Eastmoor Academy, but didn't follow him to Ohio State, where Griffin had been a two-time Heisman Trophy winner.

Pead was ignored by Ohio State and instead went to Cincinnati, "and had the time of my life," he said. "I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Cincinnati won three Big East titles in Pead's four years. He played as a true freshman, lettered as a sophomore (806 yards rushing; 201 yards receiving), and started as a junior and senior (2,288 combined yards rushing with 65 receptions). He was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year in 2011.

Because of star return specialist Marty Gilyard, and then because he was the starting running back, Pead did not return many kicks until very late in his career – very late, as in the Senior Bowl.

Pead broke the all-star game record with 98 punt-return yards to win the game MVP award. He had returns of 60 and 38 yards, and the former Ohio prep 400-meter champ thought he opened some eyes.

"Definitely as a return specialist, just because I don't have that much on film at Cincinnati," he said. "I practiced it every year in my career but never got thrown into a game until the end of my career and then finally in the Senior Bowl."

Pead showed all-around skills at Cincinnati as both an inside and outside threat, and as a receiver, but admitted he needs to work on his blocking.

"I definitely have to gain weight," he said. "That's going to be a big key in my blocking. The physical part? I don't shy away from contact. I did it all my career. Of course, we were a spread offense so a lot of times I was flanked out at receiver and doing swings or whatnot. When it was time to block I stayed in and blocked. I gave up a few sacks. I'm not perfect. But at the same time I was competing."

Pead measured 5-9.7, 197 at the combine and ran a 4.41 40. The Steelers had him in for a visit this spring and it's contributed to the belief Pead will be the Steelers' third-round pick.

Other potential mid-round choices are inside pounders Robert Turbin (5-9½, 222, 4.5) of Utah State and Terrance Ganaway (5-11½, 239, 4.67) of Baylor, and pass-down/return-specialist types like Ronnie Hillman (5-9, 200, 4.45) of San Diego State and Michael Smith (5-8½, 207) of Utah State, who wasn't invited to the combine but ran a 4.33 40 at his pro day.

If the Steelers can't get their desired value, they can always re-sign Moore and wait for Mendenhall to return at mid-season to help Redman with the brunt of the workload.

As for fullback, the Steelers signed one off the street this offseason – former WVU tight end Will Johnson – but the team didn't appear to have a buy sign at the combine, where several H-back types admitted to having no contact with the Steelers.

The best move fullback in the country was USC's converted tight end Rhett Ellison, and the closest he came to talking to a Steeler was his new coordinator, Kennedy Polamalu, uncle of Troy.

"Fullback is a whole different animal than tight end, a lot more difficult," said Ellison. "As a tight end you've got a triangle – D-end, linebacker, safety or corner. As a fullback you've got to see both safeties, you've got to see both corners, you've got to see the techniques those D-linemen are in, and the tendencies that might give away pressures and stuff like that. You've got a lot more responsibility with protections. And at fullback, you have a guy on paper but it doesn't always work out that way. You've got to be able to react. You've got to look at your reads, go with the flow, and sometimes you're not going to get your guy and you've got to do extra. It's more of a thinking game at fullback.

"The person who saved me was Coach Kennedy Polamalu. Coach Pola took me into his office and spent hours teaching me that position. He's an unbelievable coach."

And Ellison (6-4.5, 251, 4.88) made an unbelievable transition. The son of former NFL linebacker Riki Ellison showed he could catch with ease, run when required, and lead block like few other converted tight ends can. He was also the USC offensive captain as one of the hardest workers on the team.

Ellison would be a sublime addition to a pro team that's just starting to list players – albeit H-backs – as fullbacks again.

Wexell's Value Board for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Third Round – Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati.

Fourth Round – Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State.

Fifth Round – Michael Smith, Utah State.

Sixth Round – Rhett Ellison, USC.

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