Mendenhall makes perfect sense at No. 1 pick

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With a screaming need for offensive linemen, a crying need for defensive linemen and a somewhat lesser but still demanding needs for a wide receiver and an outside linebacker, the Steelers used their first pick in the NFL draft to select a running back -- a position already manned by a young Pro Bowl performer.

The Steelers are growing dangerously old on the defensive line. They lost their best player from an offensive line that was, at best, average. They lacked depth and future star power at wide receiver.

Yet yesterday they chose Rashard Mendenhall, a running back from Illinois, who, at least for now, figures to be nothing more than a caddy for Willie Parker, who led the NFL in rushing before breaking his leg in the first quarter of the 15th game last season.

It would appear to make no sense. Yet it makes perfect sense.

As much as the Steelers had other needs, they also had a distinct need at running back. They didn't need a player to back up Parker, they needed a player to share duties with Parker. The era of one back taking the vast majority of the carries is drawing to a close. In five years, people will look back on Jerome Bettis, the quintessential workhorse running back, as a relic.

More to the point, at 209 pounds, Parker is not built to take the pounding that comes with the 314 carries he had last season. That number would have swelled to about 350 if had not been injured. Parker, expected to be fully recovered by training camp, carried 337 times in 2006

This two-back wave of the future has spread across the NFL, and the Steelers saw it first hand in their two losses against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the first game, 6-foot-1, 226-pound Fred Taylor gained 147 yards on 25 carries and 5-7, 211-pound Maurice Jones- Drew carried 12 times for 69 yards. Taylor, a Hall of Fame-bound veteran, provided inside power, but with the ability to go all the way. Jones-Drew was an exciting, young speedster.

The Steelers, although they're not saying as much today, see Parker as their Jones-Drew and Mendenhall, 5-10, 221 pounds who runs a 4.41 40-yard dash, as their Taylor.

The Super Bowl champion New York Giants are another team that went to the two-back system after superstar Tiki Barber, who had been getting almost all the carries, retired. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward shared the running duties for the Giants.

The Steelers absolutely did not expect Mendenhall to be available when their turn came and, for once, this was not the biggest lie of draft day. Most mock drafts had Mendenhall, who ran for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns for Illinois last season, going in the mid-teens.

"He's an exciting running back," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who oversees the draft. "He runs with power, he runs with moves, he can catch."

It was generally believed the Steelers would go for an offensive or defensive linemen with their first choice. But, with seven offensive linemen and five defensive linemen already taken when their turn came, most of the best at those positions had been selected. That made Mendenhall all the more enticing.

The Steelers had not taken a running back in the first round since 1989, when they selected Tim Worley. In fact, the conventional wisdom is running backs can be found later in the draft and it's foolish to waste a first-round choice on one.

As draft guru Mel Kiper once noted, "I've been saying this for 30 years. The easiest position to find a player is running back."

So why Mendenhall in the first round?

"When you look back on last year," said Colbert, "once Willie was injured it was a difference, obviously. Willie Parker's a Pro Bowl running back, and, when you go from a Pro Bowl running back to anybody, there's going to be a drop off unless you have another Pro Bowl running back.

"Most successful teams have two productive running backs that they can count on. This one's a little bit bigger than Willie, so there may be some things that he can do to complement Willie, and that's only going to help us."

Coach Mike Tomlin, of course, isn't about to hand Mendenhall -- an unsigned rookie -- anything, let alone a significant bit of playing time.

"At this point, he's a young guy trying to fit in," said Tomlin. "He'll be backing up Parker."

That's the official company line as of today. Come the start of the 2008 season, expect to see a lot of Mendenhall and expect to see a lot of him for a long time.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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