Taking a running back in the first round is controversial move these days. Most believe that the value at that position doesn’t warrant a high pick anymore. So when it comes to the Steelers drafting Najee Harris, there are plenty of pros and cons to look at. In this post we will look at both sides of the argument on whether or not drafting Harris was the right move.
There is no question the Steelers had a major need at the running back position. This team was the 29th ranked ruching team in 2020. https://www.nfl.com/stats/team-stats/offense/rushing/2020/reg/all That was before they lost starter James Conner to free agency. Adding the consensus best running back in this draft class can only help Pittsburgh’s anemic run game.
Focusing more on Najee himself, there is a lot to like. This is a big physical back who also excels at catching balls out of the backfield. At 6’1”, and over 230 lbs he is a load to deal with for opposing defenders. He led Alabama with over 1,400 yards rushing, and 26 touchdowns this past season. Najee Harris is the kind of top tier talent Pittsburgh hasn’t had at this position since prime Le’Veon Bell.
The hopeful improvement in the run game will help Ben Roethlisberger immensely. The Pittsburgh Steelers were unbalanced, and all too predictable by the end of 2020. Opposing teams did not respect the run whatsoever, and focused all their attention on Roethlisberger. Harris’ ability as a receiver will also be a huge plus. His threat after the catch is something teams did not worry about in the least with last year’s crop of running backs. Add to that Harris being a plus pass blocker, and this player should give Big Ben a real boost this season.
Drafting Najee Harris did not come without its pitfalls, starting with his age and usage. Harris is already 23 years old as he enters the league. This goes against the usual Steelers philosophy of drafting younger players in the first round. He is the oldest player Pittsburgh has taken in the first round since Jarvis Jones in 2013. His 638 career carries is also on the high side. It is more than double Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s numbers as the first back taken last season. In fairness, it’s less than Travis Etienne’ s numbers who was taken shortly after.
Then there’s the cart before the horse argument. Drafting a back when the offensive line is in shambles seems to be a little curious at best. This is a team that currently has BJ Finney as their starting center. Their right tackle (Banner) has one career start, and is coming off a major injury. The left tackle (Chuks) is switching positions, and the right guard (DeCastro) seems to be declining. We go into this in further detail here: Key to fixing the Steelers run game? Invest in the offensive line
Finally there is the question of whether or not Najee Harris was the best back in this draft at all. Travis Etienne was certainly more explosive. Given this team sees a lot of loaded boxes, and teams crowding the short area in the passing game, a home run hitting back may have been a better fit. Many people, including us, had Javonte Williams ranked ahead of both. Williams is a tough, physical runner who was the best pass protector in this draft. This all lends itself to the argument that good backs can be found later in the draft. Better to draft a back 80% as good as Harris later on, and nail down a top offensive lineman early on.
There’s no doubting that Najee Harris is a quality back the likes of which this franchise hasn’t seen in years. He makes an excellent addition to the skill players on this team. The only way this becomes truly successful however is if Kevin Colbert can pull at least one plus starter on the offensive line in the rest of this draft. Taking a back before a center, or a tackle is very risky business. If the line doesn’t improve it won’t matter how talented the running back is. Colbert is certainly capable of nailing picks deep in the draft. He will have to for his first round pick to have the type of impact this team needs.