Much has been made about the discourse on running back value for the Steelers this draft season. However, not a lot of the talk has actually been about the talent of running backs that are being discussed. For example, how do Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and others stack up against one another?
This is a question that has to be explored even more as the NFL Draft nears. First, let it be known that the running back position is one that does have an impact on the field. Running backs do matter to an extent. They are merely fungible and it is a position where a lot of outcomes are determined by those other than themselves. A running back is extremely reliant upon his offensive line and other blockers. For a running back to be worth the value of a first-round pick, he has to be able to step in from day one and bring an all-around day one impact.
This is where the discussion of true talent amongst these top running backs comes into play. And it is why the Steelers should consider only Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Again, it is understandable that they love the value that Harris brings. He is likely to be the best player available at the 24th overall pick. Harris has a few traits that set him apart from the other top two of the presumed big three in this class.
The biggest one and most pertinent to the Steelers is that Harris is on another plane as a receiver. Yes, Etienne and Williams are suitable in this area. Harris is an elite receiving back. The Steelers’ production from their running back room last year was near the bottom of the league. James Conner never got going in that area, and Ben Roethlisberger lacked a suitable, trustworthy target out of the backfield. Harris has experience catching back-shoulder fades and running a full receiver route tree. Etienne and Williams can not say that. That adds significantly more immediate impact from Harris.
Now, the trump card that Etienne has over Harris is speed. Harris is not a big-play, explosive threat. That is okay, however. Long speed is the least important trait at the running back position, and Harris is a good all-around athlete. He has the lateral quickness and explosiveness to be an elusive player in the open field. Just like both Etienne and Williams, he creates with his contact balance as well. All three of them share elite contact balance to bounce back off wimpy tacklers to gain extra yardage.
However, and this is where Harris really makes his separation, Etienne and Williams are both inconsistent decision-makers. Etienne does not have a strong feeling of how to work off his blockers in-between the tackles. This can be developed over time, but the Steelers are in an immediate win-now window, and Etienne may take a few seasons to reach his peak, if he does. Etienne’s vision is arguably his biggest weakness. Williams, on the other hand, just has spotty vision. If he had great processing, he could be near Harris, but his vision does prevent him from taking advantage of plays otherwise. On the other hand, Harris has elite vision and maximizes each play with a great feel for how to manipulate second-level defenders.
Harris and Williams are both steady in pass protection, and there is a good argument for Harris to be the best in this argument. Etienne still struggles with hand technique and processing. Williams, more so, struggles with lunging forward and framing his targets. The biggest argument against Harris is the tread on his tires and his age. He is already 23, and Williams and Etienne are younger.
However, the Steelers are clearly looking for short-term impact with a running back pick. Most importantly, they want the guy who comes in to be an integral part of fixing their running game. Harris is the only true first-round running back in this class on a pure talent scale. He does everything at a high level, and the Steelers can feel comfortable that Harris will help the running game to a degree. It is why if Harris is gone, it would be wise for the Steelers to fade on selecting a running back at 24.