The Pittsburgh Steelers spent a first-round draft pick on a running back last week for the first time since 2008 when the club made Rashard Mendenhall the No. 23 overall pick.
The Steelers' selection of Najee Harris at No. 24 overall was met with part expectation, part cynicism and part ambivalence. Pittsburgh had telegraphed in the lead-up to the draft that it wanted to upgrade the RB position and targeted Harris as the top running back.
Many believe selecting a running back in the first round is a foolish waste of capital relative to other positions. Others viewed the offensive line as a more significant concern in Pittsburgh.
Former Steelers Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis thought snagging Harris was a stroke of genius.
"I thought it was a great pick. I thought it showed their commitment to getting back to running the football," Bettis told Ed Bouchette of The Athletic. "In order to definitively run the football, you have to have a hammer and they went out and got a hammer, and now they're able to philosophically do some of the things they weren't able to do."
Harris is a modern-day power back who can run between tackles and is also a threat in the passing game. He should never have to come off the field in Pittsburgh.
The tackle-breaking back forced 93 missed tackles on touches in 2020, most in FBS, per Pro Football Focus. Of those missed tackles forced, 71 came on rushes (2nd most in FBS), and 22 came on receptions, which led running backs by nine. Harris generated 821 rushing yards after contact last season, second-most in college football.
Plowing through tackles is a translatable skill, even as the competition ramps up with Harris joining the rugged AFC North.
The argument against drafting running backs early is usually buffered by the belief that clubs can unearth productive backs in later rounds. Bettis finds that mode of thinking reckless.
"These running backs are not a dime a dozen," Bettis said. "People are inclined to think 'Ahh, you can find one in the later rounds.' You can't find a good one. What you find in the later rounds are all small running backs. The big backs weren't there late. You know why? Because there aren't any. When you find one, you got to get him, quick."
Of the running backs to finish in the Top 10 in rushing yards in 2020, three were taken in Round 1: Josh Jacobs (8th in rushing yards in 2020), Melvin Gordon (9th), Ezekiel Elliott (10th); four went in Round 2: Derrick Henry (1), Dalvin Cook (2), Jonathan Taylor (3), Nick Chubb (7); one was a third-rounder: David Montgomery (5); one went in the fifth round: Aaron Jones (4); and one was an undrafted free agent: James Robinson (6).
If yards per attempt is a preferable differentiator: Seven were Round 2 picks: J.K. Dobbins (1), Chubb (2), Henry (4), Miles Sanders (5), Ronald Jones (6), Cook (7), Taylor (8); one was a third: Alvin Kamara (9); one a fifth: Jones (3); and UDFA Gus Edwards came in 10th (third-rounder Damien Harris and UDFA Raheem Mostert also earned 5.0 YPC but on fewer attempts).
Of PFF's top-10 graded running backs in 2020, with a minimum of 150 attempts, only Jones was taken outside the top three rounds.
The question is not whether anyone believes Harris will be a good player. The argument is, would the Steelers have been better off selecting an offensive lineman early to support a severely diminished blocking group? Had they passed on RB, it's likely the top three (Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams) would have all been gone by the time the Steelers picked again at No. 55 overall. All three of the backs came off the board by pick No. 35, and another RB wasn't taken until No. 88 (Trey Sermon, 49ers).
Bettis believes that the Steelers leaning on Harris and the ground game will help that young Steelers offensive line, which could be among the worst groups on paper in the NFL entering the summer months.
"Now that you have to develop," Bettis noted of the O-line. "Here's what you always have to know about the offensive line: It's much easier as a young or inexperienced offensive line to run block. It's a lot harder to pass block. So if you're developing an offensive line, you want to get them running the ball first, get them comfortable and then you're working with them and teaching them pass protection and how to be more efficient and effective in pass blocking. With any offensive line, you want to start running the football with them."
After going pass-heavy with an aging quarterback, who turned 39 in March, the Steelers have talked extensively about upgrading the running game to bolster Ben Roethlisberger in what could possibly be his final season. The biggest piece of that plan was using a first-round pick on Harris.
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