In 2022, five running backs (including one fullback) recorded carries for the Steelers offense. Starter Najee Harris and then-rookie Jaylen Warren accounted for 91 percent of those carries (349 of 384 total). The next two most-active carriers, Benny Snell and Derek Watt, are currently free agents, while Anthony McFarland is on a reserve/futures contract after spending last season on the team’s practice squad. All signs are pointing to an offense heavily featuring Harris and Warren, but is it possible that Pittsburgh would go so far as to only keep two running backs on their roster going into the 2023 season? Mark Kaboly of The Athletic seems to think so. Let’s break it down.
First of all, the name of the game for NFL running backs these days is “youth.” With a 25-year-old Harris heading into his third NFL season and a 24-year-old Warren heading into his second, the Steelers may be better set up than any team to roll confidently with two backs for a full season. Harris hasn’t missed a game since entering the NFL, and after leading the NFL in touches as a rookie, he shouldered another heavy load last year with the sixth-most touches in the league.
Warren wasn’t asked to do much in his rookie season. He only averaged about five carries per game, but despite playing less than half the number of snaps as Harris, Warren showed he has potential catching out of the backfield. He recorded 15 fewer receiving yards than Harris, but Warren averaged 7.6 yards per catch to Harris’s 5.6. He fits as an ideal relief back for Harris who can slide in on passing downs when needed. He hasn’t shown that he can carry the team if needed, but neither has any other back on their roster. Plus, Harris hasn’t put Pittsburgh in that position yet during his short career.
McFarland is struggling to hold on to a roster spot in Pittsburgh. After appearing in 11 games as a rookie in 2020, McFarland has only appeared in three games in the two seasons since. The team waived him in its final roster cuts before last season, negating his four-year rookie contract, before signing him to the practice squad and, eventually, a futures contract.
Pittsburgh also signed running back Jason Huntley to a futures contract this offseason after he spent the 2022 season on the practice squad. Huntley has 18 career carries for the Eagles over his first two years in the league but didn’t contribute at all to the Steelers offense last year.
Additionally, the team signed three undrafted free agents: small school backs Darius Hagans out of Virginia State and Alfonzo Graham out of Morgan State as well as Iowa fullback Monte Pottebaum. Hagans and Graham put up strong 2022 seasons for the Trojans and Bears, respectively, but neither is really considered a big threat to push Warren for backup or receiving back duties. Pottebaum was a distinguished scholar at Iowa and a strong special teams contributor.
Of all the above-mentioned backs, McFarland and Pottebaum have the strongest cases for making the 53-man roster with Harris and Warren. Special teams coordinator Danny Smith reportedly has a number of holes to fill in his units, but if he can do so without McFarland or Pottebaum, their chances of making the team will plummet.
Pottebaum has the added opportunity of solidifying himself as a true fullback, filling the void left by Watt. Even that’s not a sure thing, though, as tight end Connor Heyward could always revert back to that role, if needed. Before playing his redshirt senior season and his rookie NFL season at tight end, Heyward spent four years at Michigan State as a stout running back. If the Steelers decided to utilize his blocking and receiving abilities in a fullback/H-back type of role, they may continue to carry four tight ends on the roster in lieu of a third running back.
So, there you have it. As insane as it may seem in today’s NFL, the Steelers may be well on their way to carrying only two running backs on their 53-man roster. They fully trust Harris and Warren to carry out the duties of the room between them, and they can always cheat a little by borrowing a bit from the tight end room, if necessary.