The Pittsburgh Steelers could be in the market for one of the top running backs available on the free agency market.
As the Steelers progress through offseason activities, they enter with a decent amount of cap space. As noted by Dale Lolley of DK Pittsburgh Sports, the Steelers have a little over $12 million in available cap space.
One of their positions of need entering training camp is a backup running back behind Najee Harris. According to Lolley, former All-Pro and Pro Bowl running back David Johnson is the top-ranked free agent among available players the Steelers should pursue.
“Johnson has been a star running back in this league,” says Lolley. “He’s been to Pro Bowls and has been named All-Pro. But he’s also now 30. Starting jobs won’t be there for him. But he’s made a lot of money in his career, and mentoring and spelling Harris while pocketing another million dollars might not sound all that bad. He’s a talented receiver, as well, and could be useful in that part of the game. Think DeAngelo Williams here.”
Johnson’s Decline in 2021 is Worrisome
At the age of 30, Johnson figures best as a backup at this stage of his career. The veteran back emerged as one of the best players at his position during the 2016 season when he ran for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns in addition to catching 80 passes for 879 yards. He was named a First-Team All-Pro selection and Pro Bowl selection while leading all running backs in receiving yards in 2016.
However, Johnson has been on a steep decline since his trade from the Arizona Cardinals to the Houston Texans. While Johnson did run for a career-high 4.7 yards per carry during his first season with the Texans in 2020, he regressed to a career-low 3.4 yards per carry in 2021 while losing carries and his starting gig to Mark Ingram and Rex Burkhead.
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson posted a 60.4 offensive grade and 34.4 pass-blocking grade, representing a career-low mark. The offensive grade was the second-lowest of Johnson’s career while his pass-blocking grade was one of the worst grades among any back in the league.
While the numbers from the previous season aren’t pretty, Johnson did play for one of the worst teams in the league in the 4-13 Texans. If there’s an argument for Johnson still having something left in the tank, it’s the fact that he was posting some of the best numbers of his career in 2020 with the Texans.
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Steelers Lacking Depth Behind Harris
Furthermore, the Steelers’ top backup behind Harris is Benny Snell, who produced some of the worst stats of any running back in the league last season. The 24-year-old Snell carried the ball 36 times for 98 yards (2.7 yards per carry) and caught two passes for just 13 yards.
According to PFF, Snell posted a 53.8 offensive grade and 49.0 pass-blocking grade last season. In other words, Snell’s rushing production was even worse than Johnson.
Due to their lack of depth at the position, the Steelers overly relied on Harris during his rookie season. The 24-year-old played 980 offensive snaps — 170 more than any other back — and touched the ball 381 times, the most in the league.
In an era where most NFL teams employ a two-back system to prevent wear-and-tear on their running backs, the Steelers may want to avoid running their young star back into the ground.
By signing Johnson, the Steelers could find a decent No. 2 option while keeping Harris fresh and healthy.