The Pittsburgh Steelers had running backs on their roster coming into the 2021 NFL Draft with NFL experience.
They had bull-headed bruisers Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage, shifty Anthony McFarland, and receiving specialist Jalen Samuels. In total, the group had most if not all of the traits necessary to be a successful running back in the NFL.
But what Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert were looking for as the league’s annual selection meeting began on Thursday night was not five running backs, but one.
They wanted a three-down player that was a difference-maker as a ball-carrier, blocker, and pass-catcher, that possessed both toughness and speed and could fit every role creative offensive coordinator Matt Canada can come up with.
They think they got their man with the No. 24 pick in the first round in Alabama running back Najee Harris.
Harris has prototypical big-back size at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, but he possesses atypical athleticism for his build. His most famous college highlight is of him hurdling a standing defender and he ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.
As a senior at Alabama, he caught 43 passes for 425 yards — an early 10 yards per reception average — in addition to his 1,466 rushing yards. His 57 career total touchdowns are a Crimson Tide record.
“Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft and it was very exciting for him to be available for us,” Colbert said at the end of the day on Thursday. “Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system.”
Harris’ ability as a receiver is a significant separator for a back entering a league that is more pass-happy than ever.
“I think I can line up out wide,” Harris said. “I think I can line up in the slot. I think I’m a mismatch with the linebackers. I feel like if a DB or a corner is not sticking me there, then it’s a mismatch on a linebacker.
“So that’s one thing. Running in between tackles I feel like is a big thing now in today’s game. I feel like I can match all that because of my size.”
The Steelers feel they have a total package back that will never have to come off the field, something the team hasn’t had since Le’Veon Bell left in 2018.
“He’s got a nice combination of size, strength and athleticism,” Tomlin said. “His picking vision is excellent in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game, and I think those are the things that made him an attractive selection.”