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Steelers-by-position: RBs

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.

Kalen Ballage, Trey Edmonds, Najee Harris, Anthony McFarland Jr., Benny Snell Jr., Derek Watt
(Free Agent Scorecard: None)

It was the perfect example of how the Steelers prioritize the "who" over the "what" when they take part in an NFL Draft. The way the game has evolved at the NFL level, a narrative has emerged that running backs are not worthy of being first-round draft picks, that the wear-and-tear inherent in the job description combined with teams' recent successes in finding quality players at that position both in the later rounds of a draft or among the pool of undrafted rookies supposedly make the idea of spending a No. 1 pick on the position a bad move.

While such a generalization might make sense when taking an overview of the recent history of the correlation of successful/unsuccessful running backs and how they entered the NFL, painting with a broad brush doesn't always yield the clearest picture. Because while some players are a reach no matter where they're drafted, others bring elements to a team that make them worth the price no matter how high they're drafted.

Going into the 2021 NFL Draft, Najee Harris was viewed as the No. 1 running back available in that class, and the Steelers seemed determined to overhaul a running attack that had finished last in the NFL during the previous season. And so, when it came time to exercise the 24th overall pick in the draft, the Steelers didn't hesitate, they didn't entertain any offers to trade out of the spot for additional picks. They wrote "Najee Harris" on the card and turned it in, and shortly thereafter Commissioner Roger Goodell was announcing the decision from the podium in Cleveland.

"Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft, and it was very exciting for him to be available for us," said General Manager Kevin Colbert shortly after the Steelers made the pick. "Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. He can also play in the passing game as a receiver or as a blocker. He's a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system, and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level. There are times where you think he should just be going down, and all of a sudden he finds 6, 7, 8 yards. It's just really exciting to get a player we think is a three-down back and add him to the team."

Sitting next to Colbert at the time, Coach Mike Tomlin added, "I think a significant component that hadn't been mentioned, though, is Najee's professional level of conditioning. He's a guy who comes to us with a professional level of conditioning along with his pedigree. I think that could be a catalyst for him to be an immediate component to our offense and to our team."

Harris finished his rookie season with 1,200 yards rushing on 307 carries (3.9 average) and seven touchdowns, while adding 74 catches for 467 yards (6.3 average) and three touchdowns. He started all 17 regular season games and played 980 snaps (84 percent), which verified Colbert's assessment of him being a three-down NFL back as well as confirming Tomlin's assessment of his level of conditioning.

As the season progressed, it became apparent that Harris was a one-man gang for the running attack, which improved marginally over 2020 to 29th in the NFL.

Throughout the summer, it appeared as though the team had plans to utilize Anthony McFarland Jr. as a complement to Harris in some way, but that fizzled when McFarland said he tore an MCL during the week leading up to the regular season opener, which sent him to the injured reserve list.

In terms of sharing the load with Harris, Benny Snell Jr. finished with 36 carries for 98 yards (2.7 average), and Kalen Ballage had 36 yards on 12 carries (3.0 average).

Since Chuck Noll was hired in 1969, the Steelers have used a first-round pick on a running back five times, including the selection of Harris. In chronological order, those picks were: Franco Harris, 13th overall in 1972, who finished his rookie season with 1,055 yards rushing (5.6 average) and 10 touchdowns, plus 21 catches for 180 yards (8.6 average) and one touchdown; Greg Hawthorne, 28th overall in 1979, who finished his rookie season with 123 yards rushing (4.4 average) and one touchdown, plus eight catches for 47 yards (4.9 average); Walter Abercrombie, 12th overall in 1982, who finished his rookie season with 100 yards rushing on 21 carries (4.8 average) and two touchdowns, plus 1 catch for 14 yards; Tim Worley, seventh overall in 1989, who finished his rookie year with 770 yards rushing on 195 carries (3.9 average) and five touchdowns, plus 15 catches for 113 yards (7.5 average); and Rashard Mendenhall, 23rd overall in 2008, who finished his rookie season with 58 yards on 19 carries (3.1 average), plus two catches for 17 yards.

At this position this offseason, the idea should be to make a serious effort to add a player capable of sharing the load with Harris. There isn't any aspect of the position that Harris cannot handle or does not handle in a way a contending team requires, but as is the case with a franchise quarterback, a team's best path is to add people who pitch in to help prolong the star's productive years because in 2021 Harris was second in the NFL in carries to Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor.

Maybe it would be best to add a veteran, but that veteran must understand Harris is the star of the show because the Steelers do not need a repeat of the LeGarrette Blount situation from 2014. And another plus of adding a veteran would be the preservation of draft capital to address some of the team's other needs.
NEXT: Outside linebackers