After scoring a franchise-record 53 touchdowns in 2018, the Steelers suffered an excruciating amount of injuries on the offensive side of the ball in 2019. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed 14 games with an elbow injury. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster missed four games due to injury. Running back James Conner also missed six games to injury, as Pittsburgh's offense went from first in the NFL in red zone efficiency in 2018 to dead last in 2019.
This week, with the 2020 NFL draft just days away, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert expressed their excitement to have Conner and Big Ben back into the fold in 2020. That being said, the Steelers' brass is not ruling out adding a quarterback and a running back to the roster via the draft.
"I know that starting the season, we'll have a healthy James Conner and we have some other young backs that have all been contributors in the past and there's no reason that they still can't be contributors when healthy," Colbert said, via Teresa Varley of the team's official website. "I always go back to James Conner had acute injuries in 2019. In 2018, he avoided that and put up a Pro Bowl season. He's still a young, ascending player, and when healthy, he's an NFL Pro Bowl player. Again, that's a hope. I know James will enter the season healthy, but you know, can we complement it, we'll see. But I'm not going in thinking we don't have a starter-capable runner because I know James Conner is."
While the Steelers are expected to select a running back at some point during the draft, someone would have to fall to the Steelers for them to spend a pick on the quarterback position, as Pittsburgh is banking on Big Ben -- who is signed through the 2021 season -- returning to pre-elbow injury form in 2020. Colbert has also expressed confidence in Roethlisberger's backup, a group that includes Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.
"I'm looking forward to having Ben in the mix and seeing how the rest of the group responds with him and we'll factor that into all the thinking we have as we move forward into the draft," Colbert said. "We look at every position no differently than any other given year and whether we are picking first or 37th or not picking, we evaluate the whole board by position, so as to properly stack it. We have a good feel for those guys and there are several players in that group that are going to be future starters, possible Pro Bowlers. There are some nice backups. If any pick makes sense at any time of course we'll make those picks. You feel good about No. 7, Ben, coming back. We know what we have in place on and we'll see where we go. But again, we'll be prepared for any position regardless of who we have on our current team."
It's easy to forget how good of a combo Roethlisberger and Conner were in 2018, their first season sharing a starting backfield. While Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards, Conner, a third round pick in the 2017 draft, tallied 1,470 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns in 13 games. A Pro Bowler that season, Conner earned AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors for October after rushing for over 100 yards and two touchdowns in three consecutive games.
Conner's success, however, halted after he sustained an injury during Pittsburgh's Week 13 loss to the Chargers. He would miss three games late in the season, as his absence was one of the reasons why the Steelers endured a late-season losing streak that ultimately kept them out of the playoffs.
The injury concerns surrounding Conner is one of the main reasons why the Steelers are expected to use a draft pick on a running back. Possible Day 2 options at running back include Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins and Florida State's Cam Akers (assuming Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor and Georgia's D'Andre Swift are off the board by the time the Steelers are on the clock with the 49th pick). Possible Day 3 options include Appalachian State's Darrynton Evans, UCLA's Joshua Kelly, Boston College's A.J. Dillon, Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Memphis' Antonio Gibson, among others.
Pittsburgh's running back room currently consists of Conner, second-year product Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels and Kerrith Whyte. Snell, a 2019 fourth-round pick out of Kentucky, played well in two starts last season, rushing for 98 and 91 yards respectively against the Chargers and Ravens. A 2018 fifth-round pick, Samuels, N.C. State's career leader in receptions, finished second on the team with 47 receptions last season. Samuels failed to make a similar impact as a runner, averaging just 2.7 yards-per-carry. Whyte, who signed with Pittsburgh after failing to earn a roster spot with the Bears as a seventh-round pick, led the Steelers with a 5.1 yards-per-carry average last season.
Tomlin and company are determined to improve a rushing attack that finished 31st in the league in yards gained in 2018 and 29th a season ago. The Steelers made moves towards improving their rushing attack in free agency, signing former Chargers fullback Derek Watt to a multi-year deal. Pittsburgh also signed veteran lineman Stefen Wisniewski, who started on the Chiefs 2019 championship team.
"We have every intention of running the ball better in 2020 than we did in 2019," Tomlin said, "whether we add that back or not, and that's just being bluntly honest with you."