It was time. And the way it worked out was perfect because when the Steelers' turn came to make the 24th overall selection of the 2021 NFL Draft, need and best player available had come together perfectly for them.
It was time, not only for a running back to be selected in the first round of this particular draft but also time for the Steelers to make the kind of commitment to improving the running game that spending a No. 1 pick on a running back represents. And it didn't take them long after going on the clock to make that commitment via the selection of Alabama's Najee Harris.
"When we went through our scenarios, it was an easy decision by us to say, if Najee Harris is available, we will pick him," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "He's an exciting player, and he's a three-dimensional running back coming from a professional offensive system. He's made NFL runs his whole career, and it was easy to identify him. I got to see him live myself this year. We had six live looks at him during the course of the season between myself and the scouts, and every time we talked about him, we were excited that this caliber of player would be available to us."
In 2020, the Steelers rushing attack finished last in the NFL, and it was a precipitous fall as well as an embarrassment for a franchise that long has built a reputation for a physical style of play, and when it comes to offense a physical style of play is reflected in an ability to run the football. Operating Woody Hayes' three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust scheme with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback would've been tantamount to football malpractice, but the Steelers inability to convert third-and-1s, fourth-and-1s, and goal-to-go situations with their running attack eventually became a deal-breaker for a team that won an AFC North title but was bounced from the playoffs in the Divisional Round.
Since the time Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll in January 1969 and simultaneously turned the fortunes of the franchise around, the Steelers had spent five first-round picks on running backs before Najee Harris became the sixth on Thursday night. And it was the pick of Franco Harris in 1972 that proved to be the second-most significant No. 1 pick in the construction of the team that went on to win four Super Bowls over six seasons during the 1970s.
Or as Joe Greene, the most significant No. 1 pick in franchise history once put it, "We didn't win very often until Franco got here, and we didn't lose very often after he did."
Much pre-draft speculation linked Najee Harris to the Steelers, but history has shown that once the picking eventually begins what seemed sensible in March can dissolve like a puff of smoke in a windstorm. And when a team is picking 24th as the Steelers were, a lot of things can happen to upset even the best laid plans, and that's when a team has to get lucky. Sometimes that kind of luck comes in the form of teams doing things off script, but in this case it was more about teams doing what generally was expected.
Right off the top of the first round, what was expected was a run on quarterbacks, and that came true. Quarterbacks were picked one-two-three for only the third time in the era of the common draft: it happened in 1971 with Jim Plunket, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini; again in 1999 with Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith; and on Thursday night with Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance.
Another pre-draft expectation was that teams would delve into the pool of pass catchers in an effort to add game-breakers to their lineups, and either because there was no dynamic defensive talent available or because the game-breakers were too compelling to pass up, this held true as well. Kyle Pitts, Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith soon followed those quarterbacks, and by the time the first 10 picks of this draft had been made, seven of them were either quarterbacks or guys who had the kind of skills to make quarterbacks look good.
Through the next 10 picks things continued to break in the Steelers' favor.
Two more quarterbacks were selected – Justin Fields at No. 11 to Chicago, which traded up from No. 20 to get him, and Mac Jones at No. 15 to New England. And if any Steelers fans still were fantasizing about their favorite team going after a quarterback in the first round, they must have missed the news that the team had signed Mason Rudolph on Thursday afternoon to a one-year extension that binds him to the team through the 2022 season.
Then some of the offensive linemen and defensive players started coming off the board. Linebackers Micah Parsons, Zaven Collins and Jamin Davis; offensive linemen Rashawn Slater, Alijah Vera-Tucker, and Alex Leatherwood; and when Miami went for defensive end/edge Jaelen Phillips, a significant obstacle to Harris falling to the Steelers was avoided. And then once the Washington Football Team picked defense at No. 19 (linebacker Jamin Davis), the only thing the Steelers had standing in their way from having a shot at Harris was a trade up by a team needing a feature back.
That's because starting with the 20th overall pick in the first round, the teams selecting before the Steelers were, in order, the New York Giants, Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Minnesota. Or to put things into the context of Thursday evening's festivities: Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Taylor, Derrick Henry, and Dalvin Cook. So when the Vikings made it official and turned in their card with Virginia Tech offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw's name on it, the Steelers needed very little time to make their selection of Harris official.
"Coach and I were talking on the way down, to be able to get a player like (Harris) at that pick without having to trade up was exciting because now we still have seven picks left, and there are a lot of good players left at a lot of positions," said Colbert. "We'll redo some things (on our board) and take a look at what we're looking at (Friday), but we're excited about the depth that's left."
Take a look at photos of the Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Najee Harris
Getting Harris without having to trade up was exciting to the Steelers, and once he was available to them with their original pick they had no interest in trading back, regardless of the offer.
"This year we identified eight players who if they were available to us we would take them and not consider a trade," said Colbert, "and Najee was one of those players."
Tomlin then described what he believed the team had gotten in its No. 1 pick.
"You know, he's got a nice combination of size, strength and athleticism," said Tomlin. "His picking vision is excellent in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He's a complete back. He's very good in the passing game, whether it's running routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There aren't a lot of holes in his overall game, and I think those are the things that made him an attractive selection."
There were a couple of other things, too. One was his decision to return to Alabama for his senior season to work on what he perceived to be the deficiencies in his game, and the other was his decision to go out of his way, literally, to support his teammates during a Pro Day in which he couldn't participate because of an injury.
Harris explained his decision this way: "When I look at tape, I want to be satisfied with myself. My junior year I was not satisfied with myself. There were a lot of things I felt like I needed to improve on and work on, me personally. A lot of people were asking, was it a hard decision (to go back for my senior year)? No, it wasn't. It was a no-brainer to be honest with you. I didn't really care about what other running backs would be in the draft class, it was, was I happy with what I put on film that year? I couldn't say I was, so I wanted to go back and improve on all those things that I felt I needed to work on."
Then there was Alabama's first of two Pro Days. Still rehabbing an ankle injury, Harris couldn't participate, but he still got in a car in Dallas where he was doing his pre-draft training and drove nine hours to Alabama to stand on the sideline and support his teammates who were able to participate.
"My decision to support my teammates was solely because throughout the four years I spent at Alabama, I've got a lot of memories with them, especially in the sport of football," said Harris. "You go through a lot of stuff with training, so it makes the bond become stronger and stronger. My flight was canceled, so it was around 8 or 9 p.m., and I took it upon myself – my agent was mad at me – but I took it upon myself to say I really want to support my teammates and the juniors who performed out there, because I know that people might not understand, but that type of support is big-time. It can help you settle all the nerves you have if you look to the side and see your brothers are there. That was a no-brainer for me for sure."
Clearly, things came together nicely for the Steelers during the first day of this three-day NFL Draft. Their evaluation was thorough, they certainly got lucky once the picking began, and they added a significant piece toward accomplishing a major goal of their offseason.
"You know, it's our intention to turn around the run game," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Whether or not our work is complete as we sit here (after the first round) in that regard or not, whether it's the acquisition of players, the development of schematics, the finding of cohesion within our staff, all of that is irrelevant in terms of completeness (Thursday night). Our intentions are to improve our running game."
And adding the best running back available in this draft didn't hurt.
Take a look at scenes from the 2021 NFL Draft in Cleveland and at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex