The Steelers could have forced a different offensive pick at No. 24 overall in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. No one can question their decision to take former Alabama running back Najee Harris anymore.
Modern NFL wisdom says investing a high selection on that position is a mistake given it’s a passing-oriented league and many teams are getting great returns on investments on later-drafted backs. For Pittsburgh, one concern was eschewing a pick on a quarterback as Ben Roethlisberger continues to fade without a true successor. The other was tabling taking an offensive lineman for a major overhaul up front.
Although Roethlisberger has struggled and the offensive line has taken lumps, Harris has validated the Steelers’ pick by proving he’s a rare complete workhorse back. Through five games, Harris has rushed 78 times for 307 yards and 2 TDs. He’s also added 28 receptions on 39 targets for 198 yards and another TD. He’s averaging 21 touches and 101 scrimmage yards per game.
For the naysayers, the bottom line is the Steelers have gone from the No. 32 rushing team in the NFL in 2020 at 84.4 yards per game to No, 31, producing only 73.6 yards per game. Their 2-3 record also suggests they will not return to the playoffs after winning the tough AFC North at 12-4 last season Pittsburgh, however, had a lot of growing fundamental problems that couldn’t be solved with a single draft pick.
The Steelers were picking too low to jump up for any of the five first-round quarterbacks, the last being Mac Jones at No. 15 overall to the Patriots. The last surefire first-round offensive tackle, Christian Darrisaw, went a pick earlier, No. 23 overall to the Vikings.
The next QB to go was Kyle Trask, No. 64 overall in the second round to the Buccaneers. The next offensive lineman picked was guard Landon Dickerson, No. 37 in the second round to the Eagles.
The Steelers didn’t reach and took the best player available. Harris was a top-15 talent and a safe pick in every sense. He was the only player that could help support two weaknesses, boosting the running game and giving the weaker-armed Roethlisberger a key additional outlet receiver.’
Pittsburgh did also address offensive line later in the draft with center Kendrick Green (No. 87 overall, third round) and left tackle Dan Moore Jr. (No. 128 overall fourth round). That was after landing a great value on another skill player who could help the offense in multiple ways — blocking and receiving — in second-round tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Moore and Green have emerged as a quickly developing starters at two key positions. Freiermuth should have an expanded supporting role soon.
The Steelers did take care of every pressing offensive need in four top picks, after stockpiling on defense with the next four picks before taking punter Pressley Harvin III, near the end of the draft. A franchise quarterback was never an option in the 2021 draft once Pittsburgh secured a playoff-team pick outside of the top 18.
Harris has been vital to supporting Roethlisberger early. Harris takes on more importance with Big Ben’s favorite short target, slot man JuJu Smith-Schuster, shelved for a while with a shoulder injury. Harris also maximizes what he blocking he gets to churn out every available yard and gives his team a new reliable red zone force.
For a defensive-minded team under Mike Tomlin, Harris also represents a physical mind-set for complementary football. At 6-1, 231 pounds, Harris is a load of a shifty power runner. He puts the Steelers in better positions to grind out games. While the running game remains rather anemic, Harris is providing an effective extension of it with his short-area receiving.
Harris is on pace for 95 receptions and 673 receiving yards on 132 targets over 17 games. Consider in 16 games last season, the Steelers’ top four running backs combined for only 60 receptions and 376 yards on 80 targets.
Based on their current state and needed immediate resources, Harris has become an essential addition. If Freiermuth becomes an integral piece and Green and Moore pan out in the long haul, then the Steelers can feel even better about their first-round pick.
The point of such an early selection is to get someone who can help the most now and later, regardless of position. Harris’ dual role will be key to moving the ball and helping the Steelers grind out as many games as they can. He also will give the Steelers’ offense a much-needed strong foundation for a while, for whatever direction it takes at QB after Roethlisberger.