By WILL GRAVES
Dri Archer just kind of laughs. He can’t help it. Spend most of your life as the smallest player on the football field and you get used to the incessant questions about beating the odds.
“I’ve always been the littlest guy out there,” Archer said. “I don’t even think about it.”
Fear is not an option for the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Pittsburgh Steelers rookie. He doesn’t worry about how his slender frame will hold up to the rigors of the NFL because it wouldn’t do any good. Archer has been playing football since he was in first grade, when he would wrap flags around his waist and imitate Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders.
The 22-year-old never met a tackle he couldn’t walk – or better yet, sprint – away from. There’s no reason to think it will be any different as a professional.
“I just want to come in and contribute, do what I’ve always done,” Archer said Thursday.
For the Steelers, that will be a little bit of everything. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley figures to get creative with how to use Archer, whose eye-popping 40-yard dash time of 4.26 seconds at the NFL combine earlier this spring was the second fastest in combine history.
It’s that number – and not the ones next to his height and weight – that leapt out to the Steelers.
“Whatever way we can find to get this kid the ball or to have him involved in our offense we are going to do that as a staff,” running backs coach James Saxon said. “(Offensive coordinator) Todd Haley is going to do a great job with that. We are all going to work together to get this guy in the right place.”
The right place could be any place.
Though he spent most of his time at Kent State at running back – where his 7.2 career yards per carry looks like a misprint – Archer is more than just 68 inches of kinetic energy who hides behind his massive offensive linemen. He also caught 99 passes and returned four kickoffs for touchdowns during his college career.
Though the NFL is one step – more likely two – over what he saw on a weekly basis while playing in the Mid-American Conference, Archer is confident he can make the leap. This is the same player, after all, whose Twitter profile picture is a drawing of him wearing a No. 1 jersey with a cape on the back.
“You’ve just got to learn to do the right things,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn the playbook and be where I’m supposed to be at all times.”
Archer is just the latest attempt by the Steelers to find a Swiss Army knife in the backfield.
Pittsburgh grabbed sprinter/running back Chris Rainey in the fifth round of the 2012 draft.
Rainey was ineffective on the field and a problem off it, eventually getting cut in January 2013 after being charged with slapping his girlfriend.
There are no such character concerns with Archer, who has quickly ingratiated himself with his teammates no matter which meeting he happens to be in, whether it’s with the running backs or the wide receivers.
Saxon praised Archer for his toughness and it’s worth noting Archer missed only a handful of games across four seasons at Kent State despite handling the ball nearly 500 times. He averaged a touchdown once every 13 times he touched the ball in college.
While it’s unfair to expect that kind of production in the NFL, Archer understands his unique skill set gives the Steelers a speedy yin to the powerful yang of top running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. He understands there are skeptics who will wonder if he was worth a third-round pick. That’s fine.
The skeptics haven’t been right yet.
“That’s why I play with a chip on my shoulder,” Archer said. “Everyone tells me I am too small. I can’t take hits. I can’t do this and I can’t do that. I am just out here to play football. And I know what I can do.”
Notes: The Steelers signed first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier to a four-year contract on Thursday. Financial details were not disclosed. Pittsburgh took Shazier with the 15th overall pick after a standout career at Ohio State.