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Steelers Analysis

Did the Steelers Make the Right Decision with Najee Harris?

The Pittsburgh Steelers declined Najee Harris’ fifth year option, but did they get that decision right or wrong?



Pittsburgh Steelers Najee Harris
Steelers RB Najee Harris scampers against the Cleveland Browns, Nov. 19, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Did you think Omar Khan and Andy Weidl wanted to put their stamp on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster? It certainly seems like they did. The overturn from Kevin Colbert’s picks to what Khan and Weidl have done is significant, and Najee Harris having his fifth-year option declined is just another example.

But Harris is one of the most complicated decisions the Steelers’ new regime has made. It’s controversial, and there are arguments on both sides of the aisle.

What is the argument for picking up the option for Harris? He is a bastion of consistency. Harris became the first player in Steelers history to run for 1,000 or more yards in each of the first three seasons of his career. In 2023, Harris had the best season of his career in terms of yards per carry as he rushed 255 times for 1,035 yards — a 4.1 yards per carry average — and he scored eight touchdowns. Harris had rushed for 3.9 and 3.8 yards per carry in his first two seasons. In other words, Harris has become a dependable running back for Pittsburgh through sheer availability and some solid tape.

He had his most efficient season yet in 2023. Harris’ rushing yards of expectation, yards per carry, and broken tackles per carry were all career-high. There is a lot to signal that Najee Harris has some upside left in his game, and this should be the best offensive line he has played behind.

But the argument against it makes sense, too. Arthur Smith’s offense runs wide zone more than anyone else in the NFL, and that offense does not cater to Harris’ downhill style. So, seeing how he performs is essential. In addition, Harris has a lot of tread on his tires and is approaching the threshold where you would expect some decline, at least after this season. Between his college and NFL touches, he has just under 1700 touches but will likely exceed over 2000 touches. Running backs hit a wall, usually near that number.

In addition, Jaylen Warren will be a restricted free agent. The team must place a second-round tender or higher on him to comfortably retain him. Are they going to pay three running backs? Unlikely. Cordarrelle Patterson has a two-year deal, so they will at least be paying one running back, likely two when Warren or Harris come into consideration.

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris in a game against the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 15, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

There’s the argument that running backs are fungible and simply easier to replace than other spots. That’s true, but it also has to be said that there is risk management in moving on from a good running back like Harris simply because finding that gem is not a given. Just ask the Steelers’ history at this position among later-round running backs. It’s not pretty!

Najee Harris is a solid player. I think there’s no doubting that, and his price tag on the fifth-year option would have made him just the 12th highest-paid running back in the NFL. But there’s opportunity cost there with a guy in Warren, who, on a per-touch basis, is more explosive and efficient. That does not mean Warren would do what he is doing now with the more significant workload, but his exceptional performance must be considered.

As it stands, the Harris fifth-year option is a tough decision. Harris did what he needed to do to earn it, but the circumstances around him are what created this storm. And hey, there are bright sides for Harris. He came into the NFL as an older running back and hit the opening market a year earlier at 27 years old.

That could allow him to cash in on the open market, and I think he will hit free agency. That’s not my thoughts on how the Steelers view Harris, but rather, the fact that Harris has leverage to earn himself a nice payday.

But this came down to all the hubbub around Harris and Warren’s performance. I would have picked up Harris’ option. You look at how the Steelers went about this, and their side is not egregious, though. Harris just fell victim to the circumstances around him in an organization with lots of ‘new’ across the board.