Anthony McFarland Jr.

Minor NFL Transactions: 12/21/23

Today’s minor moves:

New Orleans Saints

New York Giants

Pittsburgh Steelers

San Francisco 49ers

Anthony McFarland Jr.‘s stint with the Steelers has come to an end after three-plus seasons. The former fourth-round pick got an extended look as a rookie, collecting 167 yards from scrimmage on 39 touches. Over the past two-plus seasons, he’s compiled only 66 yards on 14 touches, with the RB being firmly behind Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren on the depth chart. That duo will continue to command the majority of the snaps at the position, with Godwin Igwebuike now serving as Pittsburgh’s RB3.

Minor NFL Transactions: 11/6/23

Today’s minor moves:

Arizona Cardinals

New York Jets

Pittsburgh Steelers

San Francisco 49ers

Seattle Seahawks

Steelers Designate WR Diontae Johnson, RB Anthony McFarland For Return

The Steelers could soon have reinforcements available on offense. Both wideout Diontae Johnson and running back Anthony McFarland returned to practice on Monday, per a team announcement.

[RELATED: Steelers Not Moving On From OC Matt Canada]

Both players have been on injured reserve since Week 2, a move which guaranteed at least a four-week absence. The fact they have each started practicing at the first available opportunity is an encouraging sign for their availability as soon as this Sunday. Today’s move opens their three-week window to be activated and avoid reverting to season-ending IR.

A hamstring injury forced Johnson to miss the past four weeks, but he has been confident he would be able to return following the team’s bye. That seems likely given his immediate return to the practice field, and suiting up in Week 6 would be a welcomed development for a Steelers offense which is in need of improvement. Johnson has led Pittsburgh in receiving yards the past three years, and he has received at least 144 targets in each of those campaigns.

The 27-year-old has produced one 1,000-yard season in that span (1,136 in 2021), and he has been a consistent presence in the team’s passing game since his rookie year in 2019. That helped earn him a two-year, $36.71MM extension last offseason as Pittsburgh made the rare move of re-upping a homegrown receiver. Johnson will regain his starting spot upon return alongside George Pickens and Allen Robinson, and he will aim to end his touchdown-less streak which lasted all of 2022 and continued in his season debut of this year.

McFarland, on the other hand, will likely have a more challenging path to playing time when he is activated. The Maryland product sits firmly behind Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren on the RB depth chart, and the latter two should be expected to carry the load moving forward. Once Johnson and McFarland are officially brought back, the Steelers will have six IR activations remaining.

Steelers Move WR Diontae Johnson, RB Anthony McFarland To IR

Coming into this season, Diontae Johnson had only missed two games in four years. He will double his absence count because of a Monday transaction. Johnson is now on the Steelers’ IR list.

A hamstring injury sustained in Week 1 will sideline him for at least four games. Johnson will head to IR for the first time in his career. Pittsburgh making this move before its Week 2 game will allow for its top wideout to come back by Week 6. The Steelers also moved backup running back Anthony McFarland to IR ahead of their Monday-night tilt with the Browns.

Teams are allotted eight IR activations per season. Johnson will undoubtedly be one of the Steelers’ activations. A knee injury sidelined McFarland, whose return timetable is uncertain. Given Johnson’s injury, it would be a bit of a surprise if he were not ready to return when first eligible. Mike Tomlin had recently stopped short of indicating Johnson would miss multiple games.

The former third-round pick became immediately productive for the team — one that has consistently developed second- and third-round receiver picks — and has become the rare Steelers wideout to receive an extension. Although JuJu Smith-Schuster signed a one-year deal after the expiration of his rookie pact in 2021, Johnson joined Antonio Brown and Hines Ward as the only Steelers starting wideouts given multiyear extensions during their rookie deals. Johnson signed a two-year, $36.71MM deal before last year’s training camp, joining A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin and Deebo Samuel as 2019 Day 2 wideout draftees to sign extensions before the 2022 season started.

Johnson, 27, led the Steelers in receiving yards during each of the past three seasons, helping the team to the AFC North title in 2020 and posting a career-high 1,161 yards in 2021. Last season, Johnson aided Kenny Pickett‘s development but famously did not find the end zone during an 86-catch, 882-yard season. The Toledo alum will need to wait a bit before having the chance to return to the end zone this year.

Pittsburgh will need to lean on George Pickens, the acrobatic catch maven beginning his second season, and trade acquisition Allen Robinson. The 10th-year vet has struggled for the past two seasons, disappointing on a Bears franchise tag and in his lone Rams season. The Rams are paying part of Robinson’s contract. The former 1,000-yard receiver did catch five passes for 64 yards in the Steelers’ opener. Calvin Austin, a slot player who spent last season on IR, also stands to see his role grow while Johnson recovers.

To replace McFarland behind Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, the Steelers elevated running back Qadree Ollison from their practice squad.

Could Steelers Keep Only Two RBs On Roster?

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.

NFL Reserve/Futures Contracts: 1/12/23

Teams continue to sign players to reserve/futures contracts, allowing the organization to retain (routinely) young, practice squad players throughout the offseason. Here are the latest reserve/futures contracts:

Kansas City Chiefs

New England Patriots

  • DB Rodney Randle

New York Giants

Pittsburgh Steelers

Tennessee Titans

Minor NFL Transactions: 11/28/22

Here are Monday’s minor moves:

Arizona Cardinals

Denver Broncos

Indianapolis Colts

Pittsburgh Steelers

Boone has been out since Week 7 with an ankle injury; the Broncos have three weeks to activate him. Signed in 2021, Boone has played a third-string role for most of his time in Denver. But Melvin Gordon‘s fumbling problem persisting led to some increased work before the ankle malady. The Broncos have three injury activations remaining.

Steelers Trim Roster To 53

The Steelers had a number of difficult decisions to make leading up to the 53-man roster deadline, including the status of Mason Rudolph. The team ended up holding on to the quarterback, but the front office still had to cut a number of players to get to the roster limit:




Marcus Allen, a 2018 fifth-round pick, appeared in 33 games for Pittsburgh over the past four seasons. Justin Layne was a 2019 third-round pick by the Steelers, with the majority of his 43 appearances coming on special teams. Anthony McFarland was also a former Steelers draft pick, while Trent Scott was brought in this offseason to compete for an OL spot. Joe Haeg started two of his 12 appearances for the Steelers in 2021.

Henry Mondeaux spent the past two seasons in Pittsburgh, getting into 26 total games (two starts). After mostly seeing a special teams role during his rookie campaign, the defensive tackle saw more opportunities on defense in 2021, finishing with 16 tackles and two sacks. Buddy Johnson was a fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft. The linebacker got into four games as a rookie, collecting two tackles. Carlos Davis was a seventh-round pick by the Steelers in 2020. The defensive tackle collected 11 tackles in 11 games.

Steelers Could Add RB; Najee Harris To Remain Workhorse

There aren’t many questions surrounding the Steelers’ approach to the running back position. As a rookie last season, Najee Harris put forth a workload worthy of a Pro Bowl selection and accounted for around 75% of Pittsburgh’s rush attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. While that may not sound overwhelming, the next closest player, Benny Snell Jr., only accounted for about 8% of the team’s rush attempts and 6% of the team’s rushing yards. Despite the seemingly small contribution, Snell is still the favorite to back up Harris next season, according to The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly. 

The Steelers’ offensive backfield doesn’t have a ton of experience. The oldest running back on their roster, Trey Edmunds, 27, has never started a game, has 31 career carries, and hasn’t had a carry since November 2019. Every other running back on the roster is 24 years old or younger. After Kalen Ballage announced he was stepping away from the NFL to coach, Pittsburgh’s roster only holds three running backs who had carries for the Steelers in the 2021 season: Harris, Snell, and Anthony McFarland Jr. After them and Edmunds, the only backs on the roster are two undrafted rookies: Mataeo Durant and Jaylen Warren.

McFarland currently has too small a sample size to depend on. During his two years in the league, McFarland has played in 13 games, carrying the ball 36 times for 116 yards. Last year, he only appeared in two games. He had three carries and three yards in those two games. Whether it’s health, size, or ability, Snell is clearly the preferred backup option over McFarland right now.

Snell has had more opportunities to showcase his abilities than McFarland. Snell was around for two years before Harris showed up, backing up James Conner. In those two years, Snell got the opportunity to start five games and contribute in many more. Kaboly compiled the stats of Snell’s starts and any game in which he had at least 12 carries, a total of ten games. Omitting an anomalous start against Washington in 2020, Snell averaged 17 carries for 72 yards per game, averaging 4.2 yards per rush in those nine games. In a full season of those opportunities, Snell would project at 1,150 yards.

Snell’s body of work in previous seasons supports the argument that he can be relied upon as Harris’ relief. But, even if the Steelers did want to add another back to the stable, what options do they have? They have the option of having the backup running backs reflect the Ravens’ starters from last year following season-ending injuries to J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, as Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman are available. (Even if Le’Veon Bell were planning to play in 2022, and not focus on a potential boxing career, his Steelers past and recent performance likely makes him a non-starter here.) Past those three, veterans Carlos Hyde, David Johnson, and Devontae Booker are all free agents. Are any of these options an improvement on Snell? Potentially, but it may not be worth the money and playbook study necessary to bring them level with where Snell is at now.

More potential names could surface as team’s trim their rosters down to the final 53. Myles Gaskin in Miami, Chris Carson in Seattle, Tevin Coleman in New York, and D’Onta Foreman in Carolina could all be on the chopping block come late August and find themselves looking for work.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Pittsburgh doesn’t enter the 2022 season with a 1-2-3 of Harris-Snell-McFarland. As attractive as those other options may sound, Pittsburgh has no interest in reducing Harris’ carries. If healthy, Harris will continue his role as a bell-cow, with Snell and McFarland only appearing in rare moments of exhaustion or for special situations. McFarland has shown he can play in a situational role and Snell has proven he can be effective when given a bulk-carry opportunity (for instance, if Harris gets injured), but the importance of the question of who backs ups Harris is moot as long as Harris stays healthy.

NFL COVID List Updates: 12/23/21

We’ve compiled a list of players who were placed or activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list today. In some instances, players activated from the list remain on IR:

Atlanta Falcons

Baltimore Ravens

Buffalo Bills

Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears

Dallas Cowboys

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

Houston Texans

Kansas City Chiefs

Las Vegas Raiders

Los Angeles Rams

Miami Dolphins

Minnesota Vikings

New York Giants

New York Jets

Philadelphia Eagles

Pittsburgh Steelers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Washington Football Team