The collective Steeler Nation was abuzz on Sunday with the rumor that former Chargers meat-grinder RB Mike Tolbert was a possible free agent target for the Steelers. That rumor lasted just under 24 hours, as Monday morning it was reported by ESPN.com that Tolbert had in fact accepted a 4-year deal with the suddenly running back-stacked Carolina Panthers. Tolbert seemed to be a perfect fit for a Steelers team that has had its share of goal-line and short yardage issues over the past few seasons, and currently has a backfield depth chart that isn’t very intimidating.
The health of starting running back Rashard Mendenhall is still a question mark, with the only official information being that he is likely to miss a large chunk of the coming season. It is possible that Mendenhall could miss all of 2012-13 after suffering a torn ACL in the Steelers playoff loss in Denver. Furthermore, Mendenhall is in his final contract year with Pittsburgh, meaning that his career as a Steeler could be over. Currently, the plan is for Issac Redman to lead the charge next season, a tenuous plan at best considering Redman is a far from proven commodity. His playoff game performance notwithstanding, Redman has been primarily a bit player for these Steelers and to consider him a feature back would be a giant leap for a team that insists they are a Super Bowl contender every season.
Diving deeper into the depth chart will bring you to Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay, players who both had nice moments during the past season but have zero experience as starting-caliber NFL running backs. With an unsettled receiver situation already complicating the Steelers offense, it would be hard to imagine the team being satisfied with either of those players being one injury away from a starting job. The team was high on RB Baron Batch in Training Camp last season, but losing his rookie campaign to an ACL injury has now put him a year behind on his development. While the possibility is always there that one of these young players could step up in a big way this summer in Latrobe, it could be a fatal error to count on it. Mewelde Moore is still an option as a 3rd down back, and he is currently an UFA who may or may not be back in Pittsburgh next season.
Addressing the situation through the NFL Draft would be tough. The Steelers will be drafting late (24th) and this is not a very deep running back draft, with only Alabama RB Trent Richardson considered a first round talent. Richardson will be off the draft board sometime in the top ten, leaving the rookie crop to include such unknown commodities as Boise State RB Doug Martin, Virginia Tech RB David Wilson, Miami RB Lamar Miller, and LaMichael James of Oregon. The Steelers would have an option of drafting one of those players, but with the current state of the roster they would be hard-pressed to use their first rounder on a running back. It is more likely that a DT, DE, or Offensive Lineman will be sporting a Steelers cap on stage that night.
That leaves two options for the Steelers to find another back before the start of the season. They could bring in a veteran free agent that they can afford, or they could attempt a trade/sign deal with another team that would allow them to acquire a solid veteran for the long haul. The free agent pool has thinned recently with the signings of RB Peyton Hillis in Kansas City and Tolbert in Carolina, but several intriguing names remain out there. If the Steelers could make a smart deal that would fit in their salary cap plans – something Kevin Colbert has been a master of – the possibilities are there for a productive player to sign with Pittsburgh. Taking the players that will be out of the Steelers price range off the table is easy – Michael Bush and BenJarvis Green-Ellis are probably going to get starter-type money from some desperate team. A quick look at the available unrestricted free agent running backs who could fit in the Steelers plans:
Joseph Addai – Taking last season out of consideration, since the Colts were basically out of the majority of their games by halftime, Addai has been a fairly productive RB over his 6-year career. At only 28-years old, Addai probably has a few good years left in him. He has carried the ball less than 300 times since 2010 and spent most of that season injured, so technically he hasn’t had a full workload since 2009. There has been little information shared about the free agency status of Addai, so he may come cheap. If so, the Steelers could do much worse than to bring him into camp.
Ryan Grant – Grant will probably end up staying in Green Bay, but if he enters the open market he is an attractive player. At 29-years old, he has only been the primary ball carrier for two seasons, both (2008 and 2009) ended in 1,200+ yard campaigns. Last season, the Packers rarely utilized Grant as the passing game and James Starks passed him on the offense priority chart. For a 6-year player, Grant has little mileage on him and could end up as a bargain.
The rest of the free agent crop includes Tim Hightower, Cadillac Williams, Cedric Benson, Brandon Jacobs, and a slew of players who would probably not be of higher value than what the Steelers already have on their roster.
Another option could be the trade, and at this point the most likely trade partner would seem to be Carolina. With Mike Tolbert signed, and DeAngelo Williams in the middle of a massive contract that would prohibit his movement, the best option may be Jonathan Stewart. At 5-10 and 235lbs, Stewart fits the prototypical Steelers running back mold, and he may end up as the odd man out in Carolina. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Stewart would be cost-effective, and would be a good bet to re-sign with the Steelers after spending much of his career on some really putrid Panthers teams. He has been underutilized since being drafted, basically providing a number two option to Williams in the Carolina offense. The addition of Cam Newton has now further complicated the running game situation for the Panthers, and Stewart looks to be a piece that no longer fits. He has averaged 4.8 YPC in his four seasons, and has a nose for the end zone. With Carolina looking to build around Newton and a deep WR draft pool, an additional 3rd round pick may be enough to pry Stewart away on Draft Day.
The Steelers will more than likely take a flier on a late-round RB again this season, but Stewart would be a player that the Steelers could consider a long-term solution, regardless of what happens with Rashard Mendenhall.
With the turmoil the franchise has endured this offseason, acquiring a solid veteran running back would go a long way towards enabling new OC Todd Haley to craft a solid offense, no matter what happens on the receiver front. It is a step the Steelers must take to keep what is left of their core players Super Bowl window open just a little bit longer.