Pittsburgh Steelers
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Were the Pittsburgh Steelers Right in Picking Najee Harris with the 24th Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft? Jerome Bettis Weighs in

The Pittsburgh Steelers were met with their fair share of criticism after they decided to pick Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. The Alabama running back was widely regarded as more of an early second day pick and many saw the Steelers’ selection of Harris as a reach. Now, this does not have anything to do with Harris’ production or skill as a player. In a vacuum, Najee Harris would be seen as one of the very best college football players in the country. In his four years at Alabama (two years as the feature back in an always-saturated Crimson Tide running back room), Harris accumulated 3843 yards and 46 touchdowns on the ground as well as 781 and 11 touchdowns in the passing game. In the 2020 season alone, Harris tallied a total of 1891 yards from scrimmage and 30 total touchdowns (26 rushing). Standing at 6-2 and 230 pounds, Najee Harris should be a lock to be selected in the first round, in theory.

In practice, however, it is not that simple. For as long as I have been watching football, the running back position has been heavily undervalued in terms of the draft. The reality is that on every year’s list of top NFL running backs, at least a few of the spots are occupied by players that were selected either late in the draft or not at all. In other words, it has been shown that a team can get great production at the running back position without using first-round draft capital. In fact, in 2020, three of the top-ten rushers in the NFL were Aaron Jones, David Montgomery and James Robinson, a fifth round pick, a third round pick and an undrafted signee, respectively. On top of that, a great offensive line can often elevate a mediocre running back to the point where he does not look so mediocre. The result is that only incredibly special college running backs are seen as realistic early first-round options (Ezekiel Elliot, Todd Gurley, etc). As we saw with Jonathan Taylor, even being one of the most electric players in college football doesn’t earn you a first-round pedigree. Taylor was an absolute stud at Wisconsin and went on to fall to the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft despite rushing for at least 1977 yards in each of his three seasons in Madison.

It’s a tough time to be a college running back. Teams often do not see running backs as high picks because there is really no guarantee that a running back taken in the first round will offer you that much more production than a player that you could select later in the draft or sign as a free agent. It simply doesn’t make sense to take a running back so high when the correlation between pick and production at the running back position is so weak.

Now, as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ selection of Najee Harris, despite the realities of NFL draft value for running backs outlined above, I actually don’t think that this was a bad pick. I had the Pittsburgh Steelers taking Harris at 24 in my mock and I made that decision because it made a lot of sense.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have always had a particular identity. The tough, blue-collar personality of Pittsburgh is reflected in their football team. The Steelers are at their best when they play the smash-mouth run heavy style that they are known for. For years, Le’Veon Bell was the team’s bellcow, touching the ball 1541 times in 62 games as Steeler. Since then, despite the mild success of James Connor as Bell’s replacement, the Steelers have been struggling in the run game, which is often the reason why they fall short of expectations. Jerome Bettis agrees, and he said the following in an interview with The Atlantic:

“I thought it was a great pick. I thought it showed their commitment to getting back to running the football. In order to definitively run the football, you have to have a hammer and they went out and got a hammer, and now they’re able to philosophically do some of the things they weren’t able to do.”

Jerome Bettis is something a hero for the city of Pittsburgh, where he played for ten seasons as the league’s foremost power-back and won a Super Bowl Championship with the Steelers. If anyone knows the value of hard-nosed, run-heavy football, it’s him.

“These running backs are not a dime a dozen,” Bettis said. “People are inclined to think ‘Ahh, you can find one in the later rounds.’ You can’t find a good one. What you find in the later rounds are all small running backs. The big backs weren’t there late. You know why? Because there aren’t any. When you find one, you got to get him, quick.”

I am inclined to agree with Bettis. I think it’s something of a sweeping generalization to say that you can’t find good running backs with good size in the later rounds of the draft, but I think there’s something to be said about simply following a basic, traditional draft philosophy: you take a guy who fills a need, a guy who’s the best player available on your board, or both. In this case, Najee Harris (who is strikingly similar to Le’Veon Bell, in my opinion) definitely fills a need. If the Steelers had him graded high enough to be selected in the first round, it only makes sense. After all, at pick 24, it’s not a make or break decision for your franchise.

Let’s not overthink this. Najee Harris is a big-bodied, incredibly talented running back who had great production in the toughest conference in college football and the Steelers were clearly looking for a feature back. The other thing is this: who else was around at 24 that could have contributed to the Steelers as much as Harris can? I would argue that Harris not only fills a need, but that he was arguably the best available player at the time of the Steelers’ pick. Rest assured Steelers fans, you got your workhorse.