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Good running backs can be found after first round

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AP
Wisconsin's top running back Montee Ball, who celebrates a touchdown run against UNLV last season, is ready to play against Northern Iowa after suffering a concussion during an offseason assault.

Scouting the running backs

The question isn't whether the Steelers will draft a running back, but where. There are quality running backs to be had, but, with all their needs, can the Steelers afford to expend a second- or third-round pick on one?

Top 5

1. Eddie Lacy

5-10, 220, Alabama

2012: 204 carries, 1,322 yards , 17 TDs

• Gained 321 yards in final two games against Georgia and Notre Dame, among his five 100-yard games.

2. Montee Ball

5-11, 212, Wisconsin

2012: 356 carries, 1,830 yards , 22 TDs

• Aggressive, pro-style runner who fights for every inch, but huge number of college carries are a major concern heading into NFL.

3. Christine Michael

5-11, 220, Texas A&M

2012: 88 carries, 417 yards , 12 TDs

• Didn't always start due to disagreements with coaching staff. Enigmatic player. Tremendous talent but no 100-yard games last season.

4. Giovani Bernard

5-10, 215, UNC

2012: 184 carries, 1,228 yards , 12 TDs

• Ran for 2,481 yards in only two seasons. Tore ACL in 2010 but came back with a pair of 1,200-yard seasons.

5. Johnathan Franklin

5-11, 195, UCLA

2012: 282 carries, 1,734 yards , 13 TDs

Caught 33 passes last season. All-time UCLA rushing leader gained 217 vs. Nebraska in first two games last season.

steelers' Dream pick

Eddie Lacy, Alabama. The consensus pick as the top runner in the draft, he has speed, power and Barry Foster-like size. The one question is whether he's a great runner or the product of a great system. Former Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram of the Saints has gained only 1,076 yards in two seasons after being the first running back chosen in 2011.

Hidden gem

Christine Michael, Texas A&M. Wasn't a full-time starter at Texas A&M last season. He could be some NFL team's starter this fall if he can stay healthy. He's an aggressive runner, the kind the Steelers like.

Best of the rest

Remaining unsigned NFL free agents include Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants) and Michael Turner (Falcons).

Related Stories
By Alan Robinson
Tuesday, April 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Call it the Shanahan Strategy.

Mike Shanahan is best known for coaching one of football's great passers in John Elway, yet he has a remarkable ability for finding running backs who produce immediately. And he finds them just about everywhere.

Except the first round of the NFL Draft.

Shanahan has coached five running backs who gained at least 1,000 yards in their rookie seasons, including Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick who ran for 1,613 yards for the Redskins in 2012.

Yet none of those five was drafted in the first round, part of a group of 18 running backs — including three undrafted players — who have gained at least 1,000 yards as a rookie since 1991 but weren't first-round picks.

In the upcoming NFL Draft, there is a possibility that the entire league might adopt Shanahan's drafting philosophy. Only a year after the Browns made Trent Richardson the No. 3 overall pick, there is a chance only one running back — Eddie Lacy of Alabama — will go in the first round. And he's not a certainty.

If Lacy falls below No. 25, it will be the second time in three years the first running back chosen went that late.

“I think you can get running backs in the second, third and fourth rounds,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “If you look at the last five years of the draft ... I think there were 15 running backs taken in the first round. About half of them have had major injury issues.”

Mayock added, “So the first-round running back thing is by no means a bang-the-table, starting, top-line running back.”

Mirroring the NFL Draft pool as a whole, there appears to be plenty of depth at running back but not a lot of expensive, high-end talent.

That could benefit the Steelers, who are the runaway leaders in rushing since the 1970 NFL merger — no team is close — yet ranked 26th last season. With so many needs, they are expected to wait until a lower round to seek out a running back.

The question is how low they can go.

“You could be looking at a Montee Ball from Wisconsin, who would be a good Steeler back because he's tough, runs hard inside, will block, will catch,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

Another possibility is Johnathan Franklin, the leading rusher in UCLA history who has visited the Steelers. He has an initial burst and open-field elusiveness.

A back who might interest the Steelers because he excels at gaining yardage after contact is Zac Stacy of Vanderbilt. He could go as low as the fourth round.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

 

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