Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Running backs have value again

- Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipald­o@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

round. Cook could go anywhere from the middle of the first round to late in the first round. Joe Mixon of Oklahoma might be the best back in the draft, but he’s expected to fall because an assault on a woman in 2014.

It wasn’t all that long ago teams totally ignored running backs in the first round of the draft. In 2013, the year the Steelers selected Bell with the No. 48 overall pick in the second round, no running backs were taken in the first round. No running backs were taken in the first round in 2014, either. Only six running backs have been selected in the first round in the past five years.

“Fournette is the oldschool NFL back,” said Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for the NFL Network. “McCaffrey, Cook and Mixon are the modern-day backs. They’re scat backs, 200-210 pounds, catch the ball well and they’re space players. The NFL has done a nice job of adapting because there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of Adrian Petersons and Leonard Fournettes out there.”

The Steelers won’t invest a first-round pick in a running back, but they could take one in the middle or later rounds. They not only need a quality backup for Bell next season, but they might need a back with starting potential if they can’t come to terms with Bell on a long-term contract.

The Steelers are in luck. This running back class is stacked with special talent in the early rounds as well as quality depth in the middle and later rounds.

“This is a really deep class,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I have 30 running backs with a draftable grade, 12 with grades in the first four rounds and 19 with grades in the first five rounds. It’s not just elite talent in this draft. It goes into the fourth and fifth rounds.”

If the Steelers want to play it safe they can take any number of quality backs in rounds 3-5. Players such as Wayne Gallman of Clemson, Marlon Mack of South Florida, Kareem Hunt of Toledo, Samaje Perine of Oklahoma, Donta Foreman of Texas and James Conner of Pitt should be available in that range.

“Wayne Gallman can do a little bit of everything,” said Dane Brugler, a draft analyst at nfldraftsc­out. “He’s over 6 feet and 215, so there are some issues with pad level, but when he runs low to the ground he runs with authority. He was a violent lead blocker for DeShaun Watson. He can pass protect and he had 65 catches. He’ll be in that top 100 range so you’d probably have to get him in the third or fourth round.”

Most draft analysts have a fifth- or sixth-round grade on Conner, a high character and highly productive former Panthers star whom Steelers coaches and scouts know all about. McShay has a higher opinion of Conner than many of his peers.

“This guy from a character standpoint, there is nothing but high grades,” McShay said. “Physically, he’s a pounder and has very good vision. He’s patient. He has brute strength. In the passing game he shows soft, natural hands. He can be effective. I remember in the Clemson game he ran a wheel route and scored.

“I don’t want to say he’s overlooked in this class, but I think he’s underrated. I think he could go late in the third or early in the fourth round. He’ll be able to come in and contribute right away.”

If the Steelers want to take a chance on a back with star potential but with some red flags they could take a look at a player such as Utah’s Joe Williams, who quit football early last fall only to return midseason and rush for 1,332 yards over the final seven games, including a 332-yard performanc­e against UCLA.

“He came back and went on an absolute tear,” McShay said. “He’s a very intriguing player who might be there in the fourth or fifth round. The vision and the patience are there, and he ran a 4.42. Obviously, there are questions about his love of the game and the issue of quitting, but the talent is there.”

 ?? Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser ?? LSU running back Leonard Fournette is one of three running backs projected to go in the first round of the NFL draft.
Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser LSU running back Leonard Fournette is one of three running backs projected to go in the first round of the NFL draft.

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