Grading The Players - Running Backs

Following is a series grading the players and strength of position for the 2003-04 Steelers.<br><br> Today: <b> The running backs</b><br><br>

There is little doubt Jerome Bettis is no longer a top-notch NFL running back. In fact, at this point in his career, he's not a lot more than average, and that's if he's healthy. But Bettis has finished the last two seasons very much unhealthy and heading into his 11th NFL season, that's not a good thing.

The Steelers will use Bettis this season as a short-yardage back and as a guy to move the chains when they're trying to run the clock. He should still be able to do those things. Grade C

Amos Zereoue benefited greatly from Bettis' injuries last season, rushing for a career-high 762 yards and catching 42 passes. He still takes too many losses looking for a hole and isn't effective at all when the Steelers are trying to grind out time late in games. Zereoue proved last season he can be an effective component of an NFL offense, but he's still not a guy you'd want to give the ball 300 times. Grade C

There are those out there who believe if he wasn't as fragile as a China doll that Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala would be a pretty good NFL running back. I'm not among them. Don't get me wrong. Fuamatu-Ma'afala can be a decent role player, but you have to take the injuries into account and he just breaks down every year.

Just think, had the Steelers not matched New England's offer for him a couple of years ago, the Patriots would have been saddled with him and wouldn't have signed Antowan Smith. Think the Patriots would have won a Super Bowl with Fuamatu-Ma'afala as their feature back? Me neither. Grade D

Dan Kreider is an excellent blocker and pretty good receiver. But he's also a fullback and they have a pretty short shelf life. It's like being a crash-test dummy.

But of the running backs on the Steelers' roster, he may be the only one who is clearly an above-average NFL player at this point in his career. Then again, he's still a fullback. Grade B-

Verron Haynes was drafted by the Steelers last year to be Kreider's backup. But they realized in training camp that he was better suited to be a runner, not a blocker. Haynes also filled in for a short stretch as the team's third-down back when Bettis and Fuamatu-Ma'afala were out with injuries. He didn't really catch the ball well enough, however, to fill that role and later broke his leg playing special teams. Haynes has promise, but at this point, he's just another guy. Grade D

The Steelers took fullback J.T. Wall in the seventh round of this year's draft and also brought in rookie free agent Wes Ours to compete for a backup spot to Kreider, who's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Both are true blocking backs.

If one of them makes the team, it could be at the expense of Fuamatu-Ma'afala if the Steelers choose to go with five running backs instead of six. Grade Incomplete

Final analysis: It doesn't seem all that long ago that running back was considered the team's deepest position. That's not the case any longer and the team will be forced to take a back early in next year's draft, which should be deep at that position. The Steelers have solid players at the position heading into this season, but no stars.

Overall position grade C

Dale Lolley

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