The player’s debatable, not the significance of the position

Steeler Nation, based on a lot of the reaction to the draft, thinks a feature runner is an absolute necessity and the Steelers, believe it or not, concur.

The disconnect is this:

The Steelers think they already have that guy in James Conner, and that they have enough to back Conner up in the wake of drafting Anthony McFarland in the fourth round.

Their assessment of the situation at running back is either inspired, a leap of faith or what they’ll ultimately regret the most about not drafting J.K. Dobbins in the second round.

“I’m a feature runner-type guy by mentality,” Mike Tomlin opined on Thursday during a “Steelers Nation Unite Huddle,” a conference call that afforded fans the opportunity to question the Steelers’ head coach.

Tomlin has a well-established track record of being that, as “Fast” Willie Parker and Le’Veon Bell can attest.

There are reasons Tomlin prefers running a running back until the wheels fall off to the running back-by-committee approach.

But he’s also of the belief you need to be able to rely on both to be complete.

“When you have a feature runner it gives him an opportunity to drive a stake in the ground,” Tomlin continued. “It allows others to rally around him. It gives you a set of core-base run plays that he specializes in and you find rhythm in that way.

“But no question in today’s game a feature runner needs to be supplemented, and supplemented by guys who are capable of doing similar things but also supplemented by guys who are capable of doing some different things and maybe challenge the defense in different ways.”

That’s what the Steelers think they have now that McFarland has been added.

But James Conner’s gotta be there, Benny Snell’s gotta be there when Conner isn’t and McFarland has to be a contributor, not an infrequent home run hitter.

If it works out that way _ there’s no guarantee it will, but it could _ Dobbins will eventually be forgotten, no matter what he does in Baltimore.

And if Chase Claypool, likewise, excels as the big, physical, speed receiver the passing game lacked, the draft will come to be regarded as brilliant much more than it will a swing and a miss.

If, if, if …

“James is a feature runner and a proven guy when healthy,” Tomlin assessed. “Benny Snell is a guy who’s capable of being a feature runner who plays with a physical style in a similar manner as James, and might be capable of being a James-type guy if James is unavailable. And we’re excited about McFarland, who brings a different component, who’s got cat quickness and is quick to speed and is capable of producing big plays in open spaces.”

Tomlin even added the Steelers are “excited” about the addition of fullback Derek Watt.

It all sounds reasonable in theory.

But there’s still an enormous onus on Conner to be what he’s been when healthy over the past two seasons as the starter, and to be healthy more often than he’s been able to be previously.

“We’re excited about what the group is gonna do largely,” Tomlin maintained. “But usually when it’s going well it’s because you have a lead dog out front, that guy is the feature runner.”

Image Courtesy of Getty Images

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