PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have a big decision to make this offseason when it comes to star running back Najee Harris, and to hear head coach Mike Tomlin speak about him this week, they might be leaning in one specific direction.
Harris, the team’s first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, has a fifth-year option built into his rookie contract, as all first-round picks do. The Steelers must make a decision this offseason on whether to pick up the option on Harris’ deal for the 2025 season.
The amount of the option is determined by a formula based on position and playing time, with a bonus for players that are initial Pro Bowl selections. The fifth-year option for Harris will be worth $6.66 million
Once the Steelers make the decision to exercise the option, it will become fully guaranteed at that point. The deadline for the team to make a decision isn’t until May 2.
Asked about Harris’ future during his season-ending press conference on Thursday, Tomlin gushed about the performance of his big back.
“Man, he’s been what we needed him to be,” Tomlin said. “I read a stat, I think you know, he’s 1,000-yard rusher three straight years and how scarce that is. And I just think that speaks to his consistency, availability. He’s been really solid.”
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. He had the best season of his career in terms of yards per carry in 2023. Harris 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 one each of his first two seasons.
Despite the strong performance from Harris and the endorsement from Tomlin, Harris’ future remains up in the air not because of his own play, but because of another strong season from his understudy.
Second-year back Jaylen Warren ran for 5.3 yards per carry, one of the best figures in the league in 2023. He ran 149 times for 784 yards and four touchdowns. He was also more involved in the passing game, catching 61 passes for 370 yards compared to 29 receptions for 170 yards for Harris.
The disparity between the production of the backs has led to Warren to earn a larger share of the carries and playing time in 2023, and led to some speculation that the team may not pick up Harris’ extra year, with the inexpensive Warren earning a nearly equal share of the backfield split.
But with Tomlin heaping the praise on Harris, it seems likely that he is anticipating the team picking up the back’s option.