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Florio: Steelers Are Hedging That Najee Harris’ Play Will Decline

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The Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to decline Najee Harris’ fifth-year option was somewhat of a surprising move. There’s arguments on both sides, but the general opinion from the national media is that the Steelers made the right move.

Mina Kimes of ESPN thinks Harris is not even the best running back on his own team, so she has no issue with the the Steelers declining Harris’ fifth-year option.

“Jaylen Warren is the best back on their roster. … He’s not just more explosive than Harris, he’s one of the best backs in the NFL,” Kimes said. “I think he’s so complete. So good at forcing missed tackles. He’s good in pass protection, he could catch passes. So, for Pittsburgh, I think this year they’ll run it back with Warren and Harris, but next year I suspect they’ll hold onto Jaylen Warren and they’ll probably draft a running back in the later rounds to add to that committee.”

Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk thinks the wheels are going to fall of with Harris sooner rather than later.

“I think the idea is, we don’t know how he’s going to feel, how we’re gonna feel from now,” Florio said on Pro Football Talk. “He could physically reach his limit this year. … You don’t see teams bet the under with their players, but they’re hedging on the side of $6.9 million is going to be a bad investment.”

In article posted by Florio on Friday, he expressed that the Steelers are take calculated risk by not placing the fifth-year option on Harris.

“They’re betting that he’s not going to generate that kind of interest for 2025, whatever he does in 2024,” Florio wrote. “It’s a surprise, given that Harris has three 1,000-yard performances in three NFL seasons. It’s also a projection that those performances won’t last through 2025. Harris has 834 carries in three seasons, and 144 receptions. Overall, he has 978 NFL touches; it’s an average of 326 per year. He had 718 touches at Alabama. That’s 1,696 since high school. Throw in another 300 or so this year, and he’ll be over 2,000.”

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 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. 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, 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.