Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Training Camp Battles: Runningback Depth

In the weeks leading up to Steelers training camp, Doubt About It's Dave Wannstache will look at some of the training camp battles that will be happening on the practice fields in Latrobe. Today, he'll look at the battle that will take place for the final runningback spots.

The Contestants: Najeh Davenport vs. Kevan Barlow vs. Verron Haynes vs. Gary Russell vs. John Kuhn

Find out our outlook and prediction, after the jump.

The Overview: This much we know about the runningback position: Willie Parker will be the workhorse and the starter on opening day. After that, it gets hazy, and there’s certainly a logjam, as evidenced by the number of contestants in this edition of “training camp battles”. We’re going to assume that the Steelers are going to keep 3 RBs on the roster, and with Parker already filling one of those, that leaves two spots left for the five guys above.

Davenport (aka “The Dumptruck) will get first crack at being the primary backup to Parker. Signed as a free agent right before last season began, Davenport filled in okay at times during the season. Still, it’s cause for concern that the coaching staff never really trusted Davenport toting the rock, as Parker logged 337 carries last season. And for a guy Davenport’s size (6’1, 247 lbs), he went down way too easy at times. Maybe I was so used to the Bus just plowing over guys. Still, the fact that he has that kind of size, to go along with pretty good speed and decent hands, makes him a pretty good option out of the backfield. The other problem he had at times last year was a tendency to hesitate in the backfield, which to me seemed to be the cause of not being completely comfortable with the playbook. Even with a new coaching staff, that problem should be rectified with almost a full off-season spent with the Steelers under his belt.

Barlow was signed to a one-year deal with a very modest signing bonus this off-season. The one-year deal leads me to believe that the Steelers front office is basically taking a look-see at Barlow in training camp. If they like what they see, they keep him. If not, it will cost almost nothing to release him. I was never into Pitt Football, so I didn’t really follow Barlow all that much when he was previously in the Burgh. He was outstanding in 2003 with the 49ers, rushing for 1,024 yards despite starting only five games. It’s been a steady decline since then for the former Peabody star. Last year was his worst year yet, as he ran for only 370 yards. Combined with his nagging injury history, it was almost like the writing was on the wall when the Steelers issued him #22 in his first minicamp and he went out and tweaked his ankle. But Barlow has shown feature back qualities in the past, and it’s hard for me to believe those skills have completely eroded. He’s a weapon out of the backfield, and could be a useful safety valve option for Roethlisberger, especially with an offensive line that doesn’t look too good right now. If he can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, Barlow has a good shot to make this team.

My fellow contributors here at Doubt About It know of my affinity for Verron Haynes. I once proclaimed (with tongue firmly planted in cheek, however) that Haynes would gain 2,000 yards in one season some day. But like Barlow, Haynes has had some injury troubles. He’s coming off a season where he tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL, which is almost the equivalent of a death sentence to a runningback. Still, Haynes has taken his rehab very seriously, resulting in him re-signing with the Steelers. Every time I watch him he runs hard, and pass-catching wise he’s an even better option out of the backfield than Davenport or Barlow. He’s also a highly skilled pass-blocker, which makes him invaluable as a 3rd down back. However, his injury history and his lack of explosiveness put him on thin ice.

Russell was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota. The guy ran for 1,130 and 18 TDs in 2005, and the fact that he did it at a Big Ten school means it’s nothing to scoff at. So why did he go undrafted? Well, he didn’t play in 2006 because he was declared academically ineligible. Even worse is the fact that he wasn’t prepared for probably the biggest moment on the road to the NFL Draft—the Scouting Combine. There, he checked in overweight and ran the 40 yard dash in 4.80 and 4.84 seconds. If you’re not prepared for the Scouting Combine, how can a team expect you to take your NFL career seriously (this is precisely why I didn’t want the Steelers to take LenDale White in the 2006 NFL Draft). He’s got a shot though, because he’s reportedly down to 217 lbs, and you can’t ignore that 2005 season he had with the Gophers. In the wake of that season, many experts predicted he would be a better runningback than his college teammate, Patriots RB Laurence Maroney. We’ll find out in training camp whether that may be true.

Kuhn is included in this discussion because of his versatility. After Haynes’ injury last year, Kuhn was signed off the practice squad and joined the 53-man roster. He possesses a rare skill set. He’s got the speed to carry the ball but he also has the size and blocking ability to be the primary backup to FB Dan Kreider. As such, I think Kuhn has a chance to make this team from the outset.

How do you separate this logjam? I don’t envy the Steelers coaching staff in this regard, but I think Davenport has the #2 spot in the bag (or the closet hamper, if you prefer). Russell is just too green right now, and I think they can stash him away on the practice squad, provided he has a good camp. I like Kuhn’s skill set, but it doesn’t make sense to carry 2 FB’s on the roster. He still has some practice squad eligibility left, and he’s been working at fullback in minicamp, so they should send him to the practice squad and tell him to be ready should Kreider go down. That leaves the final spot for Barlow or Haynes, and Haynes pass-blocking skills put him over the top. I have a feeling Ben is gonna need those pass-blocking skills when Kendall Simmons is once again getting abused in the trenches. Sometimes, making the team is about finding your niche, and Haynes has found his as the 3rd down back.

The Prediction: Davenport as #2, Haynes as the 3rd down back, Kuhn and Russell to the practice squad, Barlow released.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Hahahaha I absolutely knew you would go with Verron. I am just glad you cited your "affinity" for him as a disclaimer.