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Steelers Analysis

Are Steelers Smart to Spend Little at Running Back?

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers making the right play by avoiding paying big money at the running back position?

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Steelers RB Najee Harris Jaylen Warren
Pittsburgh Steelers running backs Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris on Dec. 3, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers sure seem like they’re trending toward deciding not to spend big money on the running back position going forward. Omar Khan declined the fifth-year option on running back Najee Harris earlier this offseason, and that now looks like a deal compared to the market value established by the New England Patriots extension with Rhamondre Stevenson on Thursday.

That approach is becoming the more common trend around the NFL than doing what the Patriots just did, and ponying up big money for a back. It’s also a big divergence from the Steelers under Kevin Colbert, who once offered to make Le’Veon Bell the highest-paid running back in NFL history — and still wishes it happened — as well as using a first-round pick on Harris in 2021.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers running backs Najee Harris, La’Mical Perine and Aaron Shampklin during OTAs on May 31, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

It seems like Khan and company have been modeling their ground game approach after the Philadelphia Eagles. Over the last three seasons, the Eagles finished first, fifth and eighth in the NFL in rushing yards.

In the first two of those seasons, Miles Sanders was the team’s primary back, playing out the last two seasons of his rookie contract. He earned $1.46 million in 2021 and $1.7 million in 2022, while the Eagles rushed for 2,715 yards and finished first in the league in 2021 and 2,509 yards and finished fifth in the league in 2022.

In 2021, Sanders averaged 5.5 yards per carry, tied for the second-best of any qualified running back. In 2022, it was 4.9, tied for seventh-best. In Philadelphia, Sanders was one of the most productive running backs in the league.

Last offseason, the Eagles let Sanders walk in free agency. He signed a four-year, $25.4 million deal with the Carolina Panthers. That’s not Stevenson money, but it was still a significant contract. 

On the field, Sanders had the worst season of his career. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry, ran for only 432 yards and lost his starting job seven weeks into the season.

The Eagles traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Detroit Lions for D’Andre Swift. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and had the most productive season of his career by far. He rushed for 1,049 yards after having a previous career high of 617.

SANTA CLARA, CA – OCTOBER 04: Philadelphia Eagles Running Back Miles Sanders (26) runs downfield during the NFL football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers on October 4, 2020 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire)

EAGLES RUSHING SUCCESS

2021 Eagles 2,715 yards (1st)
2022 Eagles 2,509 yards (5th)
2023 Eagles 2,190 yards (8th)

2021 Miles Sanders $1.46m
2022 Miles Sanders $1.7m
2023 DeAndre Swift $1.77m

If you invest enough in the offensive line, it doesn’t matter that much who the running back is. That’s why running backs have been devalued around the NFL as a position. With the Steelers spending four top-four-round draft picks on offensive linemen over the last two classes, it sure seems like this is the approach that they’re taking, with Andy Weidl looking to replicate the offensive line success here.

The Steelers have Harris and Jaylen Warren cheaply for 2024. They have Harris under team control for 2025. Warren might be cheaper to extend if they buy out his RFA year, but paying him big money doesn’t seem more likely than paying Harris. It seems that whoever mans the position beyond 2024, it probably won’t be someone making big bucks, with the investment in the offensive line expected to carry the running game forward, regardless of who is running.