PITTSBURGH — Najee Harris doesn’t have to worry about a new contract just yet, as the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 first-round pick still has two seasons left on his rookie contact and an option year after that.
But what he’s seeing in regards to his potential earnings when that time comes around is not making him happy.
The NFL is in the midst of a years-long cycle of the devaluing of the running back position, based on historical trends of players at the position not leading long careers.
But the events of this offseason have taken that trend a big step further, as productive, star running backs have been unable to come to terms on new deals at their historic rate.
The New York Giants are deadlocked with Saquon Barkley (1,312 yards in 2022) after using the franchise tag on him. The Minnesota Vikings just released Dalvin Cook (1,173 yards) to avoid paying him $10.4 million in base salary. After leaving the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent, Miles Sanders (1,269 yards) got just $13 million in guaranteed money over four years with the Carolina Panthers.
Ezekiel Elliott (876 yards) hasn’t even found that. He remains a free agent after being cut by the Dallas Cowboys to help minimize an $18.2 million cap hit for 2023. There’s talk he could return to Dallas at a greatly reduced price.
That’s not a lot of money for one of the most productive players at his position over the last few years. The franchise tag value that Barley was tagged for is $10.09 million, the lowest of any position other than specialists. With the current crop of free agents unlikely to cash in above that number, it could decline further by the time Harris hits free agency.
So needless to say, he’s been distress by the current events at his position.
“To see people like that get released, especially in my position, it’s like, damn, what did they do?” Harris said Tuesday after the first practice of Steelers minicamp. “Is it because of their age? You know what I mean? Dalvin Cook is coming off multiple 1,000-yard seasons. What? I don’t know. Is it money from the team? They got to pay somebody? I don’t know. But it’s eye-opening, for sure.”
And it comes while the running game is experience a resurgence around the league. Teams rushed 14,770 times for 65,894 yards and 4.5 yards per carry in 2022 — all increases from 2021. That doesn’t include the receiving prowess of backs that have become bigger and bigger parts of NFL offenses while being devalued.
“It’s almost as if you’re a queen in chess,” Harris said. “You could do a lot of things: Line up out wide, run the ball, protection. You could be implemented in the offense so much. For them to say a position is not as valued, it’s kind of crazy.”
The Steelers, of course, have been in this place before. They had a notorious contract standoff with former star running back Le’Veon Bell, using the franchise tag on him twice before Bell decided to hold out for the entire 2018 season instead of signing the tag a second time. Bell ended up going to the New York Jets, where he struggled and was eventually released.
But things aren’t always so cut and dried when it comes to whether or not to pay running backs. The Steelers seemingly let Harris’ immediate predecessor, James Conner, go too soon.
Conner left Pittsburgh for the Arizona Cardinals on a one-year, $1.75 million contract after the Steelers drafted Harris in 2021. He has rushed for over 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns while sharing time starting for the Cardinals over the last two seasons.
One of the knocks against Connor was a perceived inability to stay healthy. Harris knows that if he wants to eventually cash in with a big free agent deal, he’ll have to continue the durability that has been his hallmark through two seasons.
Harris has played in 35 of 35 games in his two Steelers seasons, while getting more touches than any other running back in that span.
“I think it’s just a matter of how you take care of your body,” Harris said. “I think that plays a big role. LeBron said he spent millions of dollars on his body. I mean, ain’t going to say I spent a million, but I spend a lot of money on my body, too, because I know the best ability is availability.”