Steelers' draft priority: Find a starting RB

The Steelers, even with Jonathan Dwyer in the backfield, are in need of a feature running back. Mitch Stringer/US Presswire

The Pittsburgh Steelers would like to draft an outside linebacker, especially given the price tag of James Harrison, who's 34. They would do well to add a safety, considering the age of their starters.

There's no such flexibility when it comes to running back. Pittsburgh has to draft someone who can gain the tough yards, break big runs and carry the load in the ground game. Calling running back a draft need is an understatement. Finding a feature back is the priority of the Steelers' draft.

Teams talk about the necessity of having two solid running backs. Right now, the Steelers have just one running back under contract, Baron Batch, who has a healing forearm and a 2-yard average on 25 career carries. General manager Kevin Colbert should get a front-row seat when the running backs take the field for the NFL combine. The Steelers can't go into the 2013 season with championship aspirations if they don't have an answer at running back, and they don't need an anonymous player to point that out.

The challenge for the Steelers is choosing a top runner in a running back class that lacks top-tier prospects. It's not an ideal situation, but it's not as if Pittsburgh has another option.

It's time to move on from Rashard Mendenhall, an unrestricted free agent who is expected to get a better offer elsewhere. It's time to acknowledge that restricted free agents Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are complementary backs, not starting-caliber ones. It's time to add fresh legs to a Steelers' running attack that has been losing ground the past couple of years.

The Steelers rushed for 1,537 yards in 2012, their fewest in a season since 2003 (1,488). They failed to make the playoffs both seasons, which isn't a coincidence.

"I can say collectively that group wasn't as good as we anticipated," Colbert said after the season. "Where we were in the running game last year was indicative of the talent at the position.”

That was a Bernard Pollard-type shot from Colbert. The message is that the Steelers have to upgrade the running back position, not stick with the status quo.

Even if the salary cap-strapped Steelers had the space, they shouldn't go after free agents like Steven Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw or Reggie Bush. It's proven that you want to avoid backs who have more than five years of wear and tear. A big back like Shonn Greene is intriguing, but he is probably too pricey for Pittsburgh's cap situation.

The Steelers also shouldn't consider Mendenhall, even though it's tempting to re-sign him because of his age (25) and previous success. Mendenhall hasn't been the same runner the past two seasons. He's been using so many stutter steps and spin moves approaching the line of scrimmage that he seems to be auditioning to become the next Steeler on "Dancing With The Stars." He also has had issues with fumbling (11 in 1,006 career touches) and with leaving the stadium after being told he wasn't going to play (which led to a one-game suspension).

The easiest -- and cheapest -- way to improve the position is through the draft. The difficulty is finding the right runner. Ask a draft expert to name the top running back in this year's draft and you might get five different answers.

Alabama's Ed Lacy, who has been projected to go in the first round by Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, will reportedly not participate in workouts at this week's NFL scouting combine because of a hamstring injury. Wisconsin's Montee Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards last season, but there are concerns that he was overworked in college. North Carolina's Giovani Bernard lacks ideal size, although he can produce big plays in the run and pass game. Michigan State's Le'veon Bell is a bruising back who doesn't have great vision. South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is the most talented back, but he suffered major injuries to both knees in consecutive seasons.

The Steelers historically don't take running backs early in the draft. Since 2000, only one running back (Mendenhall) has been selected in the first four rounds by Pittsburgh. Recent NFL history shows the Steelers don't have to reach for a running back in the first round this year. Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray were all selected No. 53 (second round) or later in the past five drafts.

Some will argue that the Steelers don't need a featured back. This is a passing league, and the offense will still be centered on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But running the ball is an indicator of success. Of the top 12 rushers in 2012, eight came from playoff teams. The Steelers have to get defenses to respect their running game so pass-rushers aren't teeing off on Roethlisberger.

"I can't say that I have the answers, but I think, again, everybody in this building agrees that that's a place we've got to get better at, and we've got to figure out what we need to do to get better," team president Art Rooney II said after the season. "It's something that I think, for the Pittsburgh Steelers to be successful, that's got to be one of the foundations and we've got to figure that out."

A few years ago, Rooney mandated that the Steelers run the ball more consistently and efficiently. They thought they could fix the running game by changing offensive coordinators. Now, it's time to make a change at running back, and the Steelers need to do so through the draft.