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- If anyone can play RB, it shouldn’t matter that Anthony McFarland is No. 3 on the Steelers depth chart
If anyone can play RB, it shouldn’t matter that Anthony McFarland is No. 3 on the Steelers depth chart
Are you concerned about the Steelers’ depth at running back behind starter Najee Harris and backup Jaylen Warren?
You are? I believe they have a helpline for people like you.
Anyway, as sad as this may be, with the Steelers inching closer and closer to finalizing their 53-man roster, there are actual people who are legit worried about who the third running back will be during the 2023 regular season.
If I had to name a front-runner at this point (if there is such a thing as the front-runner for the No. 3 running back spot), it would be Anthony McFarland Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Maryland in the 2020 NFL Draft. Is McFarland the front-runner based on merit, or is it just by default? You heard things about how good McFarland was looking early on in camp, but didn’t we hear that in previous years? Besides, with players named Darius Hagans and Greg Bell rounding out the training camp depth chart, McFarland damn sure better be the front-runner for the third-string spot.
If McFarland was improving over his first three seasons, why did he get cut last year–his third season–and wind up on the practice squad out of training camp? Yes, McFarland did have a cup of tea on the active roster in 2022, but he began the 2023 offseason by signing a reserve/futures contract.
Not great career progress for a fourth-year running back.
McFarland came into this training camp with just 146 career-rushing yards–including 30 on six carries a year ago. Is this the kind of guy the Steelers want representing them as the third-string running back?
Yes. I mean, why not?
Third-string is third-string for a reason. Do you think the Steelers could do any better? They actually did do better than that in recent years when their running back depth chart included players named Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell. Yet, you couldn’t wait for those guys to get cut. While you failed to come up with any derogatory nicknames for Samuels, you often referred to Snell as “Benny Snail.” He was slow, get it?
Both of those guys are now gone.
Now, it’s time for McFarland to be the third-string running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unfortunately for the anti-Ant-Macs out there, McFarland may have put a huge down payment on his roster spot during the Steelers’ 27-17 win over the Buccaneers in a Week 1 preseason game on August 11. Did McFarland gobble up a bunch of yards? No. But he did look super fast while outrunning multiple Tampa defenders on the way to a 14-yard touchdown.
McFarland’s speed was an attractive attribute coming out of college. Sadly, he spent most of his first three seasons looking like he was running in place behind the Steelers’ offensive line. But maybe that was because the offensive line was bad for the better part of McFarland’s first three years.
It doesn’t look so bad anymore, and maybe the new-and-improved line will open up some holes and allow McFarland to show off that blazing speed.
What about McFarland’s lack of versatility? He’s not a great special teams player, and you’d like a third-string running back to be a special teams ace.
You mean like Snell kind of was during his four seasons in Pittsburgh? Not only was Snell a good special teams player during his Steelers career, but in terms of backup running backs, he was freaking Jim Brown. That’s right, Snell gained 982 yards on 275 carries. True, most of those yards were over his first two seasons, but it’s not like he forgot how to run. The Steelers just decided to add more pedigree to the position.
I’m talking about the first-round pick they used to select Harris in the 2021 NFL Draft.
If you still think Harris was a bad first-round pick, you’re certainly not alone. It remains a common narrative discussed on social media, Steelers sites and talk radio.
Fine, but if you can find a running back anywhere–if they are, in fact, a dime a dozen–why couldn’t Samuels, Snell or McFarland just show up and show out?
Were they not given a chance, or did they simply not have the tools to succeed? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if running backs really aren’t a dime a dozen. It’s as if it matters where they are selected and what they did in college. Perhaps there’s more to playing the position than the effectiveness of the offensive line.
I know what you’re going to say. Warren, a 2023 UDFA out of Oklahoma State, dazzled a bit as a rookie when he rushed for 379 yards on just 77 carries (4.9 yards a pop). He looks more explosive than Harris. He seems to have better vision than Harris.
I remember folks saying similar things about Snell heading into the 2020 season. In limited action, Snell nearly surpassed the chronically injured James Conner as the team’s leading rusher in 2019–his rookie year–with 426 yards on 108 carries. Snell then tallied 113 yards while relieving an injured Conner in a Week 1 victory over the Giants on Monday Night Football.
That was basically Snell’s last hurrah, however.
I’m not saying Warren will meet a similar fate, but stranger things have happened.
Having said that, I am very excited about what Harris and Warren can do as a duo. I still think Harris is the better player and should be starting, but that doesn’t mean I want Mike Tomlin to ride him until his wheels fall off. No, I’d be happy with the same distribution of labor that we saw a year ago when Warren’s 77 carries were a nice complement to Harris’s 272. Harris has rushed for a combined 2,234 yards over his first two seasons as a Steeler. Considering the expanded regular-season schedule, that might not seem all that impressive, but if we’re fully acknowledging that the offensive line was a work-in-progress the past two seasons, why can’t we also admit that it may have hindered Harris’s production just a bit? While I don’t think just anyone can be a productive running back in the NFL, even former first-round picks need holes to run through.
Harris didn’t have many over his first two seasons. However, he did start to see some open up during the second half of 2022. That just so happened to coincide with the vast improvement of the run-blocking after the bye, as well as Harris’s return to health following a preseason foot injury.
So, with Harris as the bell-cow, and Warren adding a little cowbell to the position, the Steelers appear to have something good going on at running back.
Do you trust McFarland as the number three? Who cares? He’s the number three running back. But if you need a reason, McFarland, 25, has plenty of tread left on his tires–he has just 42-career carries. If you need another reason, he also has a history of working with offensive coordinator Matt Canada when the two spent time together at Maryland.
Still not sold? Oh well, it’s the third-string running back.
I mentioned that helpline, right?
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