One of the worst kept secrets leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft was that the Pittsburgh Steelers were in love with Alabama running back Najee Harris. This player-team pairing was among the most popular mock draft selections all throughout the process, so when the Steelers ended up selecting Harris no one was especially surprised.
While it was not a shock Harris went to the Steelers in round one, I did think there were a few more pressing needs the team could have addressed—specifically left tackle, center, and corner. The Steelers are potentially looking at a long-term rebound in the upcoming seasons and drafting a running back high when there could be a chance that his prime years are with a bad football team could come back to bite them, but there is no denying that Harris’ talent was well worth a first-round pick.
Harris was widely considered to be the best or second-best running back in the draft and was one of the safer players in this entire class. While many in the draft community subscribe to the "never draft a running back in the first-round" theory, I am actively against that—if a running back is graded highly enough to warrant a first-round pick, then you should definitely take him if he’s the best player on your board. Mike Tomlin was asked after the draft about why he took a running back in the first round and this was what he told The Athletic:
“He was a player that we really valued. We were ecstatic that he was there, and we took him and we took him pretty quickly with little to no dialogue. We’re extremely happy with where we are this evening.”
It’s extremely clear that Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers' front office believe that Harris is a difference-making player at the position and that he will be able to contribute right away.
When NFL teams report together for OTAs later this month, most rookies will find themselves splitting reps with the twos or the threes as they get acclimated to their new team. I don’t believe that’ll be the case here with Harris. The Steelers had a massive hole at the position as James Conner left in free agency to sign with the Arizona Cardinals. Conner was a three-year starter for the Steelers after he replaced former Steelers legend Le’Veon Bell back in 2018. The in-house candidates the Steelers had to replace Conner were all uninspiring, to say the least. Benny Snell is a back and he showed some promise last season playing in relief of Conner when he missed three games due to injury, but ultimately, Snell is best served being a solid No. 2 back who can get you through a game if injury occurs. The other two backs on the roster are former 2020 fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland and change-of-pace back Jaylen Samuels—both of those players certainly haven’t shown enough for anyone to have confidence that they could be able to be a feature back in the NFL. I see zero reasons why Tomlin would make Harris jump through any hoops to be RB1 and I would fully expect to see him with the ones come the start of OTAs.
If the Steelers take the kid gloves off of Harris and use him to the full extent of his abilities, then he should be in for a monster season. Just from a pure volume standpoint, the Steelers are one of the only teams in the league to subscribe to the bellcow running back philosophy. Rarely did we see Tomlin mix in other backs when his No. 1 guy was cooking.
Over Conner's three years as a starter, he saw 65% of the team’s snaps, and that’s while missing 12 games due to injury. Going even further back to the prime Bell days, the Steelers fed Bell the ball early and often, averaging nearly 25 touches per game over his five years as a starter. With Conner out and the stable of backs behind Harris not posing much of a threat, Harris should easily flirt with 18 carries per game.
Harris is also in store for a heavy dose of work in the passing game as well. One of the traits that separated Harris from many other backs in this class was his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. Even for a bigger back, Harris showed extremely reliable and consistent hands and really good body control and concentration to adjust to off-target passes. He has the ability to run crisp and efficient routes both from the backfield and even split out at times.
As a senior at Alabama, Harris hauled in 43 receptions on 53 targets with only one dropped pass. This skill will surely be utilized by offensive coordinator Matt Canada as he looks for ways to get the ball out of an aging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands as quickly as possible. Roethlisberger was at his best when he had a trustworthy running back behind him and a guy who he knew he could check the ball down to if things get murky and that’s exactly what Harris can be for them at the very least. On top of Harris’s expected 18 or so carries per game, I could see him grabbing five or so receptions as well.
Now, even though Harris is an outstanding talent and should expect to see a heavy workload both as a runner and a receiver, his success is still largely dependent on how the offensive line blocking in front of him performs. Last year, the Steelers' offensive line was a major liability, especially in the run game. Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva, two longtime Steeler greats, regressed exponentially last season and by the end of the year were hanging on by a thread. The team ended up letting Villanueva walk in free agency and Pouncey, realizing his body wasn’t allowing him to get to the same spots as he was before, retired early in the offseason. The team also lost left guard Matt Feiler in free agency, but do return former All-Pro right guard David DeCastro who battled injuries last season but should be fully healthy entering 2021.
The Steelers may have lost three starters along the offensive line, but I could argue they replaced these players with better players who are younger and more athletic. Zach Banner returns after a torn ACL cut his season short after week one. Banner is set to slot in at right tackle while Chuks Okorafor makes the switch from right tackle to left tackle.
Adding Banner to this line will certainly give the running game a boost as he is a downhill mauler who covers people up at the point of attack. Backup guard Kevin Dotson will step in at left guard to replace Feiler and based on the tape I saw of Dotson when played last season, this could be a pretty significant upgrade in the run game due to Dotson’s physicality and strength at the point of attack. At center, the Steelers drafted the athletic Kendrick Green in the third round, and he should have the inside track to the starting job. Green's youthful legs and athleticism will be a welcomed addition after Pouncey struggled to reach the second level at times of last season.
Getting better in the running game was clearly a point of emphasis for the Steelers' front office heading into the offseason. With the team’s revamped offensive line and with the addition of Harris, I expect this to be the best Steelers running game we have seen in quite a few seasons.
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