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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Looking at the running backs

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old "best player available" mantra, let's be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We're going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The running backs.

One of the first things new head coach Mike Tomlin talked about when he joined the Steelers was how he believes that teams need two good running backs to make their offense work in today's NFL. It was something former head coach Bill Cowher believed as well.

But the Steelers certainly didn't have two good running backs in 2006. The Steelers tried Duce Staley, Verron Haynes and Najeh Davenport in a complimentary role to Willie Parker and none was able to get the job done.

Because of that, the 5-10, 210-pound Parker was forced to handle 337 rushing attempts to go along with 31 receptions. No other running back on the team carried the ball more than 60 times.

The Steelers definitely want to change that despite the fact that Parker produced a 1,494-yard season with 13 rushing touchdowns without missing a game. Tomlin would be much more comfortable with cutting Parker’s rushing attempts back to about 300.

So far, the Steelers have been unsuccessful thus far in adding another runner, re-signing Davenport while releasing Haynes. That leaves Parker, Davenport, fullback Dan Kreider and 2006 rookie John Kuhn as the only running backs on the Steelers' roster right now. None of those players were drafted by the team, as Davenport was signed as a free agent at the start of last season after being released by Green Bay, while Parker, Kreider and Kuhn joined the Steelers as undrafted free agents.

For a team that prides itself on running the football, that’s not a badge of honor.

It's highly likely that the Steelers will use a first-day pick in this year's draft in an attempt to find that second runner to pair with Parker.

Davenport stepped into that role for much of the 2006 season, but wasn't really the answer. The 250-pounder gained 221 yards on his 60 rushing attempts, but didn't show much as a short-yardage back. At 6-1, he runs too high to be effective in those type of situations, though he was effective as a third-down back, proving to be good receiver and a willing blocker on blitz pickups.

Kuhn, a former NCAA Division II standout at Shippensburg, isn't a long-term answer either. Though he picked up 18 yards on his two rushing attempts and another 15 yards on one reception, the team has to be able to do better if it hopes to contend in 2007.

The Steelers said when they released Haynes right before the opening of the free agent period that it would like to re-sign him at some point, but his injury history is a long one.

As for Kreider, he remains one of the best blocking fullbacks in the NFL, but the Steelers are going to have to start thinking about replacing him at some point. The 30-year-old Kreider has taken a beating in his seven seasons with the team and is heading into his contract season.

The chances are very good that the Steelers will not add just one, but possibly two running backs - with one being a fullback-type - in this draft.

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