Daryl Richardson pondered the question for a few moments, then shrugged.
“I’m not for sure,” said the most veteran candidate for a roster spot behind Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams on the Steelers’ running back depth chart. “I just know I have to make the best of my opportunity.”
Richardson was given an extended look in Friday’s preseason opener against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field. He had been asked if he took that as a sign of confidence in him and his abilities by the coaching staff.
With veterans Bell and Williams both secure in roster spots and a desire to preserve their bodies, five other running backs were in uniform for the Steelers in their first live, game action of the summer. As we’ve seen in recent years, however, the third- and fourth-string backs have had an alarming and peculiar tendency to play critical roles for the Steelers.
While a top two of Bell and Williams, on paper and when healthy, is the envy of most anyone in the league, those two aren’t without their risks: Williams is 33 (the oldest running back in the league) and didn’t make it to the playoffs last year because of injury. Bell has had significant injuries during each of his first three seasons in the NFL and has missed all three of the Steelers playoff games in that span.
Oh, and there’s the matter of he might miss the first four games of the season that you might have heard about.
So with that in mind, the Nos. 3-4 running backs should be a front-burner subject.
Looking at the first preseason game for guidance, Richardson by far played the most among those competing for the job(s). He also was the most productive:
SNAP COUNTS AND PRODUCTION FOR RUNNING BACKS IN THE STEELERS PRESEASON OPENER
Player Offense Special teams Touches*/yds Returns/yards
Daryl Richardson 24 2 13/60 1/25
Fitzgerald Toussaint 17 12 2/8 1/23**
Brandon Brown-Dukes 10 0 2/10 —
Cameron Stingily 6 2 1/1 —
Christian Powell 0 3 — —
Note: Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams did not play.
**-Toussaint had a special-teams tackle, which is somewhat notable
“I think I did pretty good; the offensive line did a great job to open things up,” Richardson said of his performance against the Lions. “But I still have to better and corrections have to be made.”
Quite simply, the Steelers wouldn’t have played Richardson that much if they weren’t considering him for the No. 3 or No. 4 running back job. (Put another way: I really don’t think, for example, they’re giving too much consideration to Christian Powell for such duties, do you?).
Richardson also was back for kickoff returns, a duty he’d never performed (not even in the preseason) over his five seasons in the NFL.
“That was the first time I’d ever had a kickoff return,” said Richardson, who broke in with a bang with the Rams in 2012 but hasn’t played in an NFL regular-season game since 2013. “Man, it happens fast and quick out there on kickoffs.”
Interestingly, Richardson did NOT play any other special teams. Yes, this entire exercise is reading too much into, well, everything, but maybe that means a good thing for his chances?
Richardson told me Sunday that he weighs almost 10 pounds more than his listed weight of 196, and he swears he hasn’t lost any quickness. During practice, he’s certainly looked like he moves well enough.
My take: Richardson has run hard in camp, he says he’s fully healthy for the first time in a while (that explains why he’s been cut four times over the past three calendar years), he’s versatile (a decent blocker and 38 catches in 24 career games) and he comes across as hard-working. His competition, in all due respect, hasn’t stood out much. (See: Powell’s lack of game snaps and Brown-Dukes size and low-level college experience – though I could see Brown-Dukes ending up on the practice squad). If Bell is indeed suspended for the start of the season, barring injury and if the proverbial season started today, I think Richardson would be a lock to open up on the 53-man roster.
Then the question becomes, does he have any chance of passing Toussaint on the depth chart? To be frank, I think Richardson has had the better camp – so far. And splitting the kick return duties between the two against the Lions suggests coaches are considering it. As does giving Richardson more reps than Toussaint.
Then again, it’s dangerous reading too much into preseason playing time. After all, the one time in his career Richardson got more touches in a preseason game than Friday was the finale of last season for the Jets.
New York cut him two days later.
Still a long, long way to go before the Steelers’ final cuts come Sept. 3.