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Saunders: Najee Harris Hardball Leaves Steelers RB Future Uncertain

The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing contract hardball with running back Najee Harris, leaving their future at the position uncertain.

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Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Acrisure Stadium on Oct. 29, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing hardball when it comes to the value of the running back position, declining the fifth-year option on the contract of running back Najee Harris, which has him set to hit free agency in March of 2025 if Harris and the Steelers don’t work out a contract extension in the meantime.

From this seat, that doesn’t seem particularly likely. 

Harris has been an outspoken critic of the NFL’s movement to devalue the running back position, and it’s hard to envision him agreeing to a team-friendly deal this summer, just for the sake of getting a deal done.

“Me personally, I’m so sad to see that they say that because they chose to devalue the running back position,” Harris said last summer. “You know, me alone, they rely on me to do this, close out the game, and they want to lean on me. It happens in Cleveland, Tennessee, the Niners. There’s a lot of times when the running back is utilized in the pass pro game, too, but that’s not a stat. If we’re not running, we’re blocking, if we’re not blocking, we’re running a route. We’re always doing something.

“The only time they choose to say it’s devalued, is when it’s time to pay a running back. It’s not devalued at all, they just don’t want to pay running backs. For us to see that and with 17 games they want us to do this, we never once say, ‘Well, the running back doesn’t matter.’ Our job is to do what we’re asked and we know that’s our job. We run to that. Obviously, we aren’t in much position with any leverage.”

Najee Harris Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris reports to training camp at St. Vincent College on July 27, 2022. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Harris has watched and spoken out as players like Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott were squeezed out of contract negotiations.

“With Saquon, he had 30 percent of the offense,” Harris said. “He’s not trying to break the market, he’s trying to get compensated fairly. They know it ain’t fair what he’s getting. He wants a long contract. Right now, he’s got no security. We have no security. You guys are using us for what you want and then when it’s time for us to re-up they go and turn the other cheek, they just, ‘Ph well you have wear and tear.’ Come on now bruh. You want to utilize us as much as you can for cheap. Then, go get another back and do the same thing.”

That doesn’t sound to me like a player that will just roll over in a contract negotiation and take whatever the Steelers are offering.

The Steelers are likely just as aware of this as the rest of us. And they should not have made a decision on whether they think the fifth-year option for Harris was a good deal for the team based on whether or not he was likely to re-sign if they declined.

RELATED: Najee Harris Shows Major Difference Between Omar Khan, Kevin Colbert

But the Steelers have likely known for some time that they were not going to pick up Harris’ option. And thus they have also likely known for some time that Harris is likely to enter this season as the last on his Steelers contract.

Given that, they probably should have made a step to attempt to secure the future of the running back position in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Steelers RB Najee Harris Jaylen Warren

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

Behind Harris, Jaylen Warren certainly seems capable of carrying a large part of the load. But Warren himself will be a restricted free agent next offseason, and his future as a Steelers player is far from assured, as well.

The team signed Cordarrelle Patterson to be its kickoff returner and third running back. But Patterson had just 181 rushing yards and 3.6 yards per carry last season in Atlanta and is already 33 years old. He’s not a part of the future, either.

One of the reasons that running backs have been devalued is that, in addition to them being injury prone and having a relatively short shelf life, that draft evaluations at the position have been specious and there have been plenty of top performers that were drafted late, or like Warren, not at all.

The top five rushers in the NFL last year included three second-round picks and a fifth-rounder. Warren had the second-best yards per carry in the league.

But just because talented players at the position can be found almost anywhere doesn’t mean that it’s easy to do so. Before the Steelers found Warren, they tried and whiffed on Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Jr. with fourth-round picks and Jaylen Samuels with a fifth-round pick.

The Steelers likely knew they weren’t picking up Harris’ option, and knew that he’s not likely to want to sign a more team-friendly extension, and yet chose not to take a swing at another long-term option in this year’s draft.

Things aren’t at crisis level with regards to the future of the position. Warren is under team control through the end of the 2025 season. There are plenty of 1B types that could be had in free agency.

But if the Steelers are dead-set on playing hardball with Harris, and I think that was the correct decision in a vacuum. But they should also be making plans to replace him at the same time, and they seem to be behind in that process.