Should the Steelers Draft Najee Harris?
By Donny Chedrick
Don’t get confused here. This isn’t me saying the Steelers should draft a particular player. I’m just suggesting why his name will be brought up by the time the Steelers find themselves on the clock at No. 24 during the 2021 NFL Draft in just about a month. The player in question is Najee Harris.
Alabama’s latest superstar running back amassed nearly 1,900 yards from scrimmage this past season with 30 touchdowns (26 rushing, four receiving). Thirty. Yes, Harris plays for a dominant team and behind a dominant line. To illustrate how good Harris was, he averaged more yards per touch in his final season at ‘Bama than Derrick Henry did in his, even with Henry having two more games and over 100 more total plays. Again, I’m not here to preach and plead for the Steelers to select Harris 24th overall. I’m just going to toss around some pros and cons.
Harris would start immediately
Right now the Steelers’ backfield is nothing to marvel at. Unless the team reunites with James Conner, who is still a free agent at the time I’m typing these words, I wouldn’t put any of the three running backs on the roster ahead of Harris. If you think Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels and/or Anthony McFarland are better backs than Harris, well, they aren’t. If the Steelers call Harris’ name at 24 on draft night he should immediately be the team’s starting running back. If it doesn’t happen in training camp, it will by Week One.
There are bigger needs
This is one of the more depleted Steelers teams in recent memory. Four significant names are gone from an elite defense. The losses of Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson and Vince Williams leave holes on defense to go along with the pieces missing on offense. Alex Highsmith can fill the void left by Dupree, but the other departures leave openings at cornerback, defensive tackle and inside linebacker. The offensive line lost borderline Hall-of-Fame center, Maurkice Pouncey, to retirement and guard Matt Feiler to free agency. Alejandro Villanueva is also a free agent and could depart as well. As of now, I’d consider the offensive line as the area with the most need, but who knows if management sees it that way?
A lineman can be found later (see Dotson, Kevin)
The Steelers have had success drafting first-round offensive linemen in the Mike Tomlin era. Using the 18th overall pick in 2010 to draft Pouncey out of Florida, then the 24th overall pick two years later to snag a Stanford guard named David DeCastro. That pairing carried the Steelers’ trenches through the 2010s and sat as two of the best interior linemen in the sport, racking up eight All-Pro selections and 15 Pro Bowl appearances between them. Last year, the Steelers may have found a diamond in the rough all the way at pick 135 when the franchise used its fourth-round pick on Louisiana guard Kevin Dotson. In 358 snaps, Dotson didn’t allow a sack. In fact, he barely allowed a QB pressure. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger got rid of the football in record time last year, but this is still an impressive stat for the young linemen. Dotson impressed the likes of Pro Football Focus as he was named to their all-rookie team on the offensive line, headlined by Tampa Bay first-rounder Tristan Wirfs. After hitting big on Dotson last April, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin may believe they can sit back again and address the offensive line after the first round.
If the offensive line is bad, what does the running game matter?
A good and fair question to pose. If the Steelers offensive line struggles in the run game as it did in 2020, does it matter who is behind them? Not really. Without adequate blocking, Harris would struggle, as would any running back in that situation. With that said, he’d still provide a spark and keep the Steelers out of the league basement in rushing yards like Art Rooney II has promised.
The front office already believes in the offensive line
Following a two-year deal for tackle Zach Banner and the return of BJ Finney, it appears that this offensive line is set until draft time. There will certainly be linemen added in the draft. If there aren’t, fans should have every right to stand outside of the team’s facility with picket signs. But I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of General Manager Kevin Colbert here and I think he feels as if the offensive line that’s already in place is what he plans on going with in 2021. Who will play where isn’t 100% known, but the names are in place. Banner and Chuks Okorafor will be the tackles, Kevin Dotson and David DeCastro will be the guards and either Finney or JC Hassenauer will be the team’s center. If you ask me, I’m not sold on this and want both tackle and center to be addressed early, but time will tell how the front office feels about the team in the trenches.
Look at the other RBs in the room
With Conner’s likely departure, the Steelers running backs consist of Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland — all mid-round draft picks. Conner, a third-round pick, worked out for a little bit. He had an outstanding 2018 after Le’Veon Bell skipped town but then became riddled with injuries the past two seasons. Conner ran the ball well early in 2020, but those injuries mixed with the Steelers’ drastic change in offensive scheme played into our curiosity as to what his numbers could have been by the end of the year. With what would be left after Conner, let’s be honest, nobody feels comfortable. I can promise you if Snell is the lead back for the entirety of the season, the offense won’t be different than what we witnessed the second half of last year. I don’t need to go through the numbers because it’s just common sense that none of the current three are true feature backs in the league. And that’s okay. They play their roles, but they aren’t mainstay starting running backs.
For every Derrick Henry, there’s a Trent Richardson
I’m old enough to remember when Alabama was just defense and running backs until a few hotshot quarterbacks worked their way into the system. You can use two of those backs to measure the other’s success; Derrick Henry, who has become one of the best and most feared ball carriers in the NFL, and Trent Richardson, who became an all-time draft bust after being selected by the Cleveland Browns third overall in 2012. Henry won Offensive Player of The Year in 2020, eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark. Richardson last played in 2019 for the Birmingham Iron of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. This doesn’t mean anything necessarily for Harris but it shows that the big-name Alabama backs are far from a sure thing.
To reiterate, this isn’t me hoping and praying that the Steelers draft Najee Harris with the 24th pick. It would improve the run game immediately, but could also be like putting lipstick on a pig with the number of holes the Steelers currently have. I would like to see a tackle or center get his name called by the Steelers April 29, but I’m open to the idea of Najee Harris.
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There is certainly a case to be made that the Steelers should go offensive line early and then take someone like Trey Sermon of Ohio State, Rhamondre Stevenson of Oklahoma, or Michael Carter of North Carolina, amongst others. Harris is a better running back than all of them and behind a good offensive line could be the difference-maker the Pittsburgh Steelers need.