Najee Harris might have words if Steelers fans think a first-round running back is a bad idea
Because the NFL Draft is not a game of solitaire, it is impossible to predict what the Pittsburgh Steelers will do with their selection Thursday night in the first round of the 2021 edition. Because they do not wish to reveal their plans to any other team, they are loathe to share much information regarding their intent. Because they are in the entertainment business, though, it is preferred that they interact occasionally with their public.
And in the conversation coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert had with the media in advance of the draft, one could discern how the Steelers would like the draft to go in an ideal circumstance.
“I don’t think you can ever underestimate the value of a quality player at any position, and running back is no different,” Colbert told the reporters in attendance, and many more listening through social media channels.
“If you have a dynamic player at any position, that player should make a difference. If you look at the Hall of Fame runners, most of those guys were taken in high rounds. So I don’t ever place that value high or low on a given position. I base it on who the player is — and what that player can do to help us.”
Najee Harris of Alabama? Travis Etienne of Clemson. Maybe even North Carolina’s Javonte Williams? One could not expect the Steelers to even provide a hint regarding their preference.
But it’s fair to assume the Steelers desire to choose a running back if the right one is available.
And, no, that is not at all a bad idea.
“There are only a few positions that would fit the Steelers’ needs right now — and the talent that would be available in the first round for them,” NFL analyst Chris Carter of DKPittsburghSports.com told Sporting News. “The reason I keep pointing to the running back position is for the past four years, you have to remember, the Steelers have picked running backs each year and none of them have stuck to become primary ballcarriers for the team.
“James Conner was a decent running back, but not the kind of game changer that the team had with Le’Veon Bell.”
Although Carter often hears from fans that the Steelers just aren’t good at drafting running backs later in the draft, his research indicates that they’re no worse than anyone else. According to Carter’s research, since 2017, the year Conner was chosen with the 105th overall pick, 61 running backs were chosen beyond the top 100 selections. That includes Jaylen Samuels, Bennie Snell and Anthony McFarland with the Steelers. Among them, only five have produced 900 or more rushing yards in a season. Conner is one.
“Nobody has some formula of just drafting a running back late and making it work,” Carter said. “You still look at important players like Derrick Henry. Without him, the Titans don’t compete as they did in the past two years in the playoffs. Dalvin Cook — without him, the Vikings are drafting in the top 10 again. I think that running back is still very important.”
NFL football in the salary cap era is first about deployment of available resources. It has become a canard among many who follow the league that selecting a running back in the first round of the draft is foolish in that respect.
Indeed, choosing one with the first overall pick — unless it’s spent on the 20-year-old clone of Jim Brown — would be ludicrous. For those in the latter part of the round, though, it’s as viable an option as any.
A running back taken with the 24th pick this year would have an estimated cap hit of $2.26 million, according to Spotrac. Ronald Jones’ cap hit for the Super Bowl winners in 2020 was $1.93 million. The team the Buccaneers played for the championship, the Chiefs, actually drafted a running back with their 2020 first pick. The cap hit on Clyde Edwards-Helaire was $1.97 million, and the return on that was 1,100 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.
It’s not just Hall of Fame backs who are taken in the “high rounds.” It’s the recent stars, guys who excelled enough to make at least a single Pro Bowl. Since the 2005 draft, 64 percent of Pro Bowl backs were selected in the first two rounds.
Such stars as Bell, Henry, Cook and Cleveland’s Nick Chubb all were second-round selections. But they came off the board, on average, with the 42nd selection. The Steelers don’t choose in the second round until No. 55. Of the 10 Pro Bowl second-rounders since 2005, only two came that far into the draft
“When you’re like the Steelers — you have T.J. Watt, you have Minkah Fitzpatrick, you have Stephon Tuitt, you have Cam Heyward … you have a wide receiver corps and still have Ben Roethlisberger under center, at least for this year,” Carter said. “When you have all those pieces in place, if you add a running back — even if he only lasts you five or six years of being a primary player — that’s still a lot of value.”
The Steelers ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards last season. Contrary to a common perception that they lacked “commitment” to the run, they at least tried to run more than four other teams but were dead last in yards per carry. Why commit to failure?
Improving at running back is not the only ingredient to improving the running game. The offensive line will be largely rebuilt. The only starter who figures to be in the same place as 2020 is veteran right guard David DeCastro. Chuks Okorafor was identified during the news conference as the team’s intended left tackle, which would mean Zach Banner returning to the right tackle spot that he earned last training camp but forfeited when he tore his ACL in the season opener. Kevin Dotson, last year’s fourth-round pick and a minor sensation filling in for injured teammates, is all but certain to start at left guard. The center spot still needs help and could be a position bolstered by the draft.
“And I’ll add to that — and let’s be clear — the improvements in the running game go beyond just the acquisition of additional players,” Tomlin said. “We’re capable of performing better than we have, players aside: schematics, formations, the things that we do to give ourselves a strategic advantage need to be improved. And that’s some of the things we’re working on.”
Of course, a team’s intent and what might be possible are often two different things. Do you believe the Packers expected to choose Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick in 2005? His slide was a happy accident for Green Bay and has paid off well into a second decade.
The Steelers could very much want Harris on their roster and see him selected earlier. They could want him and discover that someone even more gifted drops to them. NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly has declared on multiple occasions that he expects Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to still be on the board when it’s Pittsburgh’s turn. It is not a popular opinion, but it would have been even harder to find someone who thought Rodgers would fall.
Carter said there are several players who might prove to be irresistible to the Steelers if still on the board at No. 24. Cornerback Caleb Farley of Virginia Tech is viewed as a potential All-Pro but did not play in 2020 and recently had a surgical procedure on his back. Linebacker Zaven Collins is expected to be drafted in the teens, but if he were available he could team with Devin Bush in a dynamic inside combination. Carter loves Notre Dame inside backer Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and suggests a JOK/Bush tandem would be the fastest linebacker tandem in the league, but he also wonders whether they would have enough heft to stand up to opponents emphasizing the power game.
“Najee Harris is the complete package,” Carter said. “Etienne has the home-run speed. That would be exciting to have. I know a lot of Steelers fans think back to the Willie Parker days. But you don’t always need that style of running back.
“One thing I think Najee Harris brings better than anybody else is his vision. He sees the process — offensive lines colliding with defensive lines and then figuring out how to get to the second level and dealing with linebackers — better than anyone in this class. When I watch this tape, I think: There’s nowhere to run here. And then, there’s a crack, but is he going to see it? And there he goes.
“He’s a pass protector. He can sit in the backfield, work as a sidecar on the shotgun to Roethlisberger. And he’s good catching the ball.”
Harris also showed the sort of feistiness that might endear him to Steelers fans when ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay stated that the Alabama star had shown “tremendous improvement” as a pass receiver in 2020. Harris caught 43 balls in 2020, after getting 27 (and seven touchdowns) the prior season. In a podcast interview with ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Harris declared that McShay “can kiss my ass” because of that assessment.
If the Steelers select him, Harris might have more to say about those in the city who’ll blast the selection of a running back. Because it’ll happen.
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