When it comes to the offseason, there’s no shortage of opinions.
Whether it be who should retire, how to work the salary cap or who to sign in free agency, a wide array of opinions will be shared on what the Pittsburgh Steelers should do following another disappointing season. Takes from the big dogs in the business such as Ian Rapoport/Adam Schefter, ours here at AllSteelers and yes, even you as fans, are thrown into the abyss of social media for either praise or deconstruction.
The 2021 NFL Draft leaves little to be desired in terms of what Pittsburgh should do with pick number 24 in the first-round, at least with the plethora of needs and possibilities the team could go.
The most sought after selection? Alabama’s Najee Harris, a play-making running back who looks to be the first of his position off the board. Harris’ scouting report from NFL Draft Bible:
“Harris shows great ability to plow through initial contact and drag defenders along for a ride. He also demonstrates tremendous balance, jump cuts and does show the propensity to want to hurdle defenders. His natural instincts allow for a good feel on distance and angles. Perhaps one of his best traits is his ability as a receiver with ideal ball skills, terrific coordination/body control and outstanding leaping ability to go for jump balls. If Harris wasn’t such a gifted runner, he could very well serve as an effective H-back or safety with his range, vertical presence and hands.”
Harris to the Steelers makes sense. With James Conner out of the picture and Pittsburgh ranking dead last in rushing offense for 2020, it’s an obvious need to overhaul that facet of the team. Seeing as though Benny Snell is still limited in his ability to hit big plays and Anthony McFarland is still very much finding his footing, Harris would be an ideal piece to take over the Steelers lead running back, and could do so immediately.
Harris is a popular pick for the Steelers in what feels like every mock draft you may read, and you certainly can’t be upset for adding playmakers who can contribute right away in the first round.
However, Harris isn’t a grand-slam pick like many who cheer on the black and gold assume him to be, at least if he landed in Pittsburgh.
This isn’t a hit on Harris in any shape or form. He appears destined to be a great running back, and surely will make a name for himself in the right situation.
With Barry Sanders being the only exception to this rule: A running back will only go as far as their offensive line can take them. There’s no coincidence Le’Veon Bell ran so well behind one of the league’s best units upfront, and the same sentiment could be carried for other top guys such as Ezekiel Elliot, Derrick Henry and more.
James Conner’s best year in Pittsburgh? The 2018 season (conveniently when Bell skipped), perhaps the last fully solid year of play from the Steelers’ offensive line. Since then, the blocking and protection in Pittsburgh has drastically dropped, and it’s no coincidence the rushing game has dropped right alongside with it.
Running backs are an important facet to every offense, yet thanks to their short window of prime play in the NFL and an influx of similarly talented runners arriving each and every draft class, the position is not once what we thought it to be. Take a look at the below tweet, where Locked on Cowboys Host Marcus Mosher shows each of the last leading rushers in the Super Bowl.
Take note at all the running backs. Leonard Fournette hit the lottery and jumped ship to a Tampa Bay team already on it’s way to a Lombardi, while other fellow first-round pick Sony Michel was part of a committee approach in New England during his Super Bowl performance.
While the tweet is centered around the low base salaries of the backs, it simply further drives home the point that large capital (salary or draft) isn’t a necessary puzzle piece to win the Super Bowl.
Notable running backs to have been drafted after the first round in the last five years:
D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, Cam Akers, J.K. Dobbins, AJ Dillon
Miles Sanders, David Montgomery
Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Conner, Aaron Jones
Not to mention the significant amount of other backs to have contributed to their teams after being drafted in the second-round or higher, and another solid crop of backs coming in for the 2021 NFL Draft the Steelers can likely take a look at.
To again echo the point: A strong offensive line will be much more effective in fixing any ground attack than simply adding a running back.
In each of the last two seasons, Pittsburgh has yet to see any running back effectively run the ball on a consistent basis with what was once considered a top-tier offensive line. With three starters leaving from last year’s offensive line and an aging David DeCastro still in the mix, it’s hard to foresee any rusher having success behind the Steelers’ unit upfront.
If you can’t afford top-tier linemen in free agency (just checked, the Steelers still can’t), the only way to truly improve the offensive line is nabbing top prospects through the NFL Draft. It’s not a sexy way to conduct business, but it’s the tried and true way to ensure the most important position group on the field is best assembled.
Should Harris end up in Pittsburgh, he’d be a good addition to a team that needs a three-down running back. However, with more prominent needs that exceed in positional value, Harris simply wouldn’t be a great pick for the Steelers in the first-round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
The ideal gameplan?
Forego the elite rushing prospect, conduct a youth movement with talented young guys upfront, and grab a serviceable running back with upside in the mid-rounds.
Obviously, it’s much easier said than done. However, to quote The Mandalorian:
This is the way.