Luckily for Steelers, plenty of value at running back in draft

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The Steelers have no more need at any position than they do at halfback. The last time they were in such a spot, they drafted one in the first round and won a Super Bowl.

Rashard Mendenhall did not contribute much to that 2008 team. Ray Lewis ruined the rookie's first NFL start with a vicious tackle that broke Mendenhall's shoulder in the season's fourth game. The Steelers went on to win their second Super Bowl in four years with Willie Parker as their leading rusher. Parker, one of the heroes of their 2005 Super Bowl victory with a record 75-yard touchdown run, was undrafted.

Jerome Bettis, the team's second-leading career rusher and a Hall of Fame finalist, was acquired in a trade. Barry Foster, who owns the Steelers' single-season rushing record, was a fifth-round draft pick.

Merril Hoge, their leading rusher three times between 1988 and 1991, was a 10th-round draft pick. Hoge will announce the Steelers' second pick in the draft Friday night at Radio City Music Hall in New York and it could be their next halfback.

The Steelers are not expected to draft a running back in the first round, not unless they make a trade that drops them lower than their No. 17 position. That is deemed too high for any of the halfback candidates in this class, including Alabama's Eddie Lacy, judged by most to be the only sure-fire first-rounder in the bunch.

The second and third rounds, however, could be a running back bazaar because that is where the value for them seems to be this year.

"Lately there's been a lot of running backs in the second, third or fourth rounds," said analyst Gil Brandt, who worked for 29 years as the personnel man for the Dallas Cowboys. "Guys like Alfred Morris from [the Washington Redskins] was a late-round pick. As [colleges] go away from running the ball like we used to, we're finding more quarterbacks and receivers than developing running backs."

Morris, drafted in the sixth round last year, set the Redskins rushing record with 1,613 yards. So much for that college development. So much for needing to draft them in the first round. Arian Foster joined the Houston Texans after he went undrafted in 2009. He ran for 1,616 yards in 2010, 1,224 in 2011 and 1,424 last season.

The Steelers have three such backs on their roster. Jonathan Dwyer, who led them with 623 yards rushing last season, was a sixth-round pick in 2010. Isaac Redman, second with 410 yards last season, was not drafted. Baron Batch was taken in the seventh round.

The Steelers are determined to add to that list and perhaps put a back at the top of it. They had three veteran free-agent backs in for visits -- Ahmad Bradshaw, Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Mike Tomlin would not rule out signing a veteran halfback.

"Really, it depends on how the draft unfolds and what we do prior to the draft," Tomlin said Monday. "Obviously, we have a number of days before the draft."

They could do both.

ESPN's Mel Kiper, who has published his draft report for 35 years, also likes the bounty of talent at the position after the first round.

"You could look at Giovani Bernard [of North Carolina] in the third, you can look at Johnathan Franklin from UCLA in the third, Mike Gillislee from Florida in the fourth or fifth, Le'Veon Bell from Michigan State in the fourth or fifth," Kiper said. "Christine Michael from Texas A&M, same thing with Knile Davis from Arkansas, Miguel Maysonet from Stony Brook -- there are a lot of backs in this draft.

"There's going to be some steals and some great finds in the late rounds -- Joseph Randle at Oklahoma State, Montel Harris at Temple, Jawan Jamison at Rutgers, Kerwynn Williams at Utah State, George Winn at Cincinnati. There are a lot of backs that are going to be evaluated.

"I can guarantee you there's going to be some fifth-, sixth-, seventh-round backs and some undrafted free-agent backs that make a team and contribute."

The Steelers need someone to contribute, a lot. While Dwyer and Redman had their moments last season, the coaches have decided they serve better as complementary backs than ones who can lead the way. Tomlin became frustrated with his back-by-committee approach last season and would like to find someone he could run, as he once said about Willie Parker, "until the wheels fall off.''

Surely he can find that kind of runner with that kind of production from his 2012 college season.

Wisconsin's Montee Ball ran for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns. Bell had 1,793 yards, Franklin 1,734 and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor 1,530. Those are just examples.

STATS LLC broke some of the college halfback statistics from 2012 into other areas. Franklin and Oregon's Kenjon Barner had the most running plays for more than 15 yards with 27 each with Ball and Lacy next with 26. Lacy had the highest touchdown rate, scoring on 8.3 percent of his carries. Bernard of North Carolina had the best yards-after-contact average with 3.2.

"I like the group," Brandt said. "I like Lacy, I like Ball, I like the Michigan State guy. Those are three guys I think are pretty good, and I think there are guys down the line that aren't bad."

One of them, maybe even two, should be Steelers by the end of the weekend.

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published April 24, 2013 4:00 AM

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