Running back, a priority or not?

They won't draft a quarterback or placekicker, but just about every other position is fair game for the Steelers in this year's draft.

Coming off a 15-1 regular season and - yet another - loss in the AFC Championship game, the Steelers have no glaring needs. But they do have some areas where they would like to upgrade their depth and others where a young player could compete for a starting job.

Both head coach Bill Cowher and owner Dan Rooney said last week in Hawaii that they expect running back Jerome Bettis to return for one final season in 2005. Maybe they know something nobody else does, but Bettis has yet to make an official announcement regarding his status for 2005.

What we do know is that he has accepted a pay cut for the second consecutive season and will play for $1.2 million if he does return this season.

But can the now 33-year-old Bettis be expected to match his production of last season, when he rushed for 941 yards scored a career-high 13 touchdowns in spot duty relief of Duce Staley?

And for that matter, can Staley, now 30, stay healthy for an entire season, or is he just another injury-prone running back?

Together, the duo of Bettis and Staley produced more than 1,750 yards rushing and scored 14 touchdowns last season.

But the Steelers were fortunate that the duo was able to keep at least one member healthy throughout the season. If Staley was banged up, Bettis carried the load. If Bettis was hurting, Staley managed most of the carries.

The Steelers feel good about backups Verron Haynes and Willie Parker, but neither has ever carried the load long-term even for a college team, let alone in the NFL.

At fullback, Dan Kreider is as solid a blocker as there is in the NFL and is finally starting to get league-wide notice for those skills, but the Steelers won't be able to hide J.T. Wall on their practice squad this season as they did in the previous two.

Because of those factors, the Steelers will likely take at least one running back and a couple of fullback prospects as part of their rookie class.

Much will depend on Bettis' status. If he really is coming back for another season, the team will likely use a late-round pick or even settle for bringing in a rookie free agent to battle Parker and Haynes for a roster spot.

If Bettis isn't coming back, the Steelers will make running back a much bigger priority in the draft, taking one in the third or fourth round.

As for fullback, the Steelers will likely go with a couple of rookie free agents to battle for a spot on the practice squad. Remember, Kreider was an undrafted free agent, as was the player he beat out for a roster spot in 2000, Joey Goodspeed. And not only is Kreider one of the better blocking backs in the NFL, Goodspeed has also carved out a nice career for himself, having just re-signed with the St. Louis Rams last week.

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