The Pittsburgh Steelers are at a crossroads offensively. They’ve got an aging offensive line, an aging quarterback, are losing a prime wide receiver to free agency, and are thin at tight end. That’s not to mention that their starting running back is moving on via free agency as well. If the Steelers go offense in round one of the NFL Draft, it would be hard to argue against any position being drafted.
The prudent pick would likely be to draft an offensive lineman. Maurkice Pouncey just retired. Alejandro Villanueva will leave in free agency after an ugly year as the starter at that position. Kevin Dotson likely has a spot etched in stone heading forward and Zach Banner likely will replace Villanueva. Outside of that, things don’t look all that promising on that front.
That’s exactly why the Steelers should go against the grain and take Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the draft in April.
It is certainly true that a good running game starts with the offensive line. After ranking dead last in rushing offense last season, the Steelers overhaul needs to start there. After watching Harris at Alabama last season, it is clear that he can be a force behind an NFL-worthy offensive line. Alabama’s line is as close to NFL-caliber as it gets as they consistently put linemen in the pros. However, just based off of physical traits, it looks like Harris is going to be a star in the NFL, given the right situation.
Harris is a bruising running back and will surely translate to the NFL with ease. He doesn’t possess burner speed but he can break away in the open field. His talent is undeniable.
Even with Ben Roethlisberger coming back for the Steelers in 2021, his throwing abilities aren’t quite what they once were. Just a remote semblance of a rushing attack last season likely would’ve made the Steelers an infinitely better team. There’s a good chance the end-of-season collapse could’ve been avoided. Giving Roethlisberger a potential elite running back prospect could change teams’ thinking on how to attack the Steelers.
James Conner will be looking for a new home next season. His story was great. His durability and overall production didn’t quite justify the Steelers giving him a contract. I’m also a firm believer that paying running backs big money is not a prudent tactic when constructing a winning team. So adding a talent like Harris on a cheaper rookie deal is a solid way to alleviate salary cap issues going forward.
Many people have claimed that the Steelers should load up on linemen early in the draft and then take a running back in the mid-rounds. Over the past few seasons, the Steelers have selected Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland in the mid-rounds. Neither Snell or McFarland have done much to inspire confidence as top-end running backs in the future. Obviously, things can change as time goes on and more opportunity presents itself for them.
This looks like one of the deeper offensive line classes in a long time, especially on the exterior of the offensive line. Grabbing a running back like Harris in the first round and then grabbing some potential starting linemen in the mid and later rounds sets up an overhaul of the offensive line that is clearly needed.
Recently, my colleague Donnie Druin put together a piece saying that Harris isn’t the home run pick in the first round. While he believes he’d be a good pick, he underlines why drafting Harris would be neglecting the true needs of the offense.
With a lack of depth at running back, Harris is a need without a doubt. Donnie stated that in the article. Even behind a truly elite offensive line, would you be confident with a guy like McFarland or Snell running behind it? To this point, I am uninspired by those players.
There is certainly a case to be made that the Steelers should go offensive line early and then take someone like Trey Sermon of Ohio State, Rhamondre Stevenson of Oklahoma, or Michael Carter of North Carolina, amongst others. Harris is a better running back than all of them and behind a good offensive line could be the difference-maker the Pittsburgh Steelers need.
One more year of Roethlisberger with a running game to actually fall back on? I’d sign up for that every day. After Roethlisberger retires, you’ll then have Harris, a good offensive line and hopefully a few more legitimate offensive weapons that can help a young, fresh-faced quarterback come 2022 and beyond.