NFL teams rarely devote a first-round draft pick to a position of strength, but that is exactly what the Steelers did by choosing Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois with the No. 23 pick last weekend.
Suddenly, Willie Parker -- the NFL's leading rusher until breaking his right leg on Dec. 20 -- finds himself competing for every carry and every snap. The Steelers didn't draft Mendenhall to sit him, and that means Parker must share a ball that rarely wound up in any other Pittsburgh back's hands last season.
"I mean, I was a little surprised" when Mendenhall was drafted, Parker said.
Still, Parker said the move "might add some years to my career" and could prevent another late-season fade by the Steelers, who lost four of their final five last season.
The Steelers had almost no running game during their 31-29 wild-card playoff loss to Jacksonville, a situation that likely wouldn't have occurred if they had possessed a second capable running back.
Coach Mike Tomlin joked he planned to run Parker "until the wheels came off" and, when they did, the Steelers were one and done in the playoffs. Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert cited that in their decision to draft Mendenhall, who ran for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns at Illinois last season.
"Yeah, I understand," Parker said. "They felt like we didn't have no running backs when I went out. ... Now, let's go get better, man. I'm not trying to be average, I want to be the best and whatever makes me better, I'm all for it."
Parker, who wasn't drafted in 2004 yet has rushed for at least 1,202 yards in all three NFL seasons he has started, has had quite a workload for a player who got few carries in college at North Carolina.
He carried 337 times in 2006 and 321 last season, despite missing most of the final two games -- the fourth and fifth most single-season attempts, respectively, in franchise history.
"You're going to feel it ... when you touch the ball like I did last year," Parker said. "My body took a toll last year."
And not just because of the broken leg, which he said is fully healed.
Mendenhall, who was presented with a Steelers No. 1 jersey during a photo opportunity Friday but will wear No. 34, said Parker welcomed him immediately. It is somewhat like the situation in 2004, when established star Jerome Bettis helped then-rookie Parker get through his first season.
"Just how to be a professional," Mendenhall said when asked what Parker has shown him so far. "He's been here for a few years. How to work, what to do, how to carry yourself as a professional and as a man."
Not that the 20-year-old Mendenhall ever felt like he wouldn't fit in, despite falling to the Steelers after being projected in many of the countless mock drafts to go in the middle of the first round.
"I have a lot of confidence in myself," Mendenhall said. "I'm supposed to come in here and produce. That is what I am planning on doing."
Or what he couldn't do at Illinois, at least not early in his career. He went there to play alongside brother and fellow running back Walter Mendenhall, yet was a part-time player until he became the Big Ten offensive player of the year last season.
Mendenhall is disappointed that, since he left school, his older brother was effectively told he wasn't wanted back at Illinois and will transfer to Illinois State as a fifth-year senior.
"Yeah, it upset me but, to tell you the truth, the way things were there, it didn't surprise me too much," Rashard Mendenhall said. "They were just never in our favor there."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.