Current conventional wisdom in the NFL is that it is not worth it to take a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft. Some teams, especially those with pretty well-stocked rosters, have bucked that trend in recent years, including the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021, with the selection of Alabama’s Najee Harris.
The Steelers were the final undefeated team left in the NFL last season, but ran out of steam down the stretch. After an 11-0 start, the Steelers lost four of their last five regular season games, and fell to the AFC North rival Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, 48-37.
One of the most significant players on the team’s defense is excited about the pick, though. Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward says he thinks that taking Harris, who most regard as the best running back in the class, will benefit the Steelers on both side of the ball.
“I think as a defender, we’re most excited to have him,” he told Good Morning Football via NFL.com. “Having a guy like that that can tote the rock 30 to 40 times a game really puts an ease for the defense. He can do multiple things. I think the investment in our offense this offseason has been huge.”
Cam Heyward on Najee Harris: "I got a chance to text him. Great kid. Loves to get to work. As a defender, we're most excited to have him. He can do multiple things. The investment in the offense has been huge and it starts with him." #Steelers
— Steelers Depot 🧐 (@Steelersdepot) May 18, 2021
30-40 times per game is probably a bit much for anyone not named Derrick Henry, but the team’s inability to consistently run the ball was an issue last year. James Conner, who the team let walk this offseason, led the way with 721 yards and six touchdowns, averaging a solid but unspectacular 4.3 yards per carry. As a team, the Steelers were held to just 3.6 yards per carry on the year.
Harris emerged as a do-it-all every down back for Alabama over the last few years. If he brings that to Pittsburgh, and takes some of the heat off the aging Ben Roethlisberger, it may in turn help the Steelers defense catch its breath.
“I think we lost a lot of gas as we went down that stretch,” Heyward said during the TV appearance. “I think our balance between our offense and defense wasn’t great. We weren’t getting off the field as much we were earlier in the season, and then our offense couldn’t sustain drives. You compound all that together, and it wasn’t a great success. Going forward, I think we can continue to keep growing.”
Roethlisberger agreed to a restructured contract to stay with the Steelers for another year, helping the team get out from under a tight salary cap situation. The goal is to win another Super Bowl with the future Hall of Famer under center. We’ll see if Najee Harris helps them take that big leap forward.