Apr. 30—During Thursday’s first round of the NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers got the player most analysts feel is the best player at their biggest position of need.
All the way down at pick No. 24.
It was a good night. Let’s not “yeah, but” ourselves to death on this one. OK?
Yes. I know Alabama’s Najee Harris is a running back. And I know running backs have been devalued by injury concerns and many modern NFL metrics.
Yet, NFL teams still need them. And the Steelers need a real good one more than most franchises in 2021.
They need a running back who can buck the trend of that position being nothing more than a product of the other players around him, instead of being the kind of player that can proactively help the rest of the offense because of his presence.
Like Le’Veon Bell and Jerome Bettis did when they were here. Like Derrick Henry — another 230-plus pound ‘Bama alum — does for the Tennessee Titans.
So, for now, let’s focus on what the Steelers got — and the need that they filled — instead of what they left on the board.
“He’s a three-down NFL back,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “He played in an NFL system. He finds invisible yards at that second level. There are times when you think he should be going down and he finds six, seven, eight more yards.”
But it wasn’t just Harris’ talent that made the Steelers select him. Head coach Mike Tomlin made it sound like the Steelers don’t buy into the trend of downplaying the importance of running backs.
“We don’t subscribe to the theory,” Tomlin said. “He was a player that we really value. We were ecstatic that he was there. We took him, and we took him quickly. With little to no dialogue.”
Colbert advanced the same point.
“I don’t think you can ever devalue greatness at a running back position,” Colbert said. “Is Najee going to be a great player? We hope so.”
The voices shouting against that stance were loud in Pittsburgh and always seem to be nationally on draft weekend. Harris didn’t mind admitting those opinions were “extremely frustrating” to hear.
“I don’t like it. I don’t agree,” Harris said Thursday night after his selection. “Running backs are devalued. I beg to differ. I could give numerous reasons why we shouldn’t be devalued.”
Like maybe the Steelers being 29th or worse in rushing yards per game in each of the past three seasons, while fading in December each year?
Harris described himself as “blessed” that the Steelers shared his opinion.
“I think I can be utilized in the passing game. I think I can be used out wide. I think I can be in the slot, a mismatch with linebackers,” Harris said. “Running in between the tackles, I feel like it’s a big thing. In today’s game, I think I can match that because of my size. I’m 6-foot-2, 230 pounds.”
If none of that sways the opinions of folks in the Pittsburgh chapter of the anti-running back committee, I hope they consider two additional points.
1. If the Steelers had traded back into the top five of the second day and made the same pick (or got Clemson’s Travis Etienne or North Carolina’s Javonte Williams) in exchange for some mid-round pick later in the draft, would that be enough to change your mind?
If so, why? Because they voluntarily devalued the player and stayed in line with the common NFL thinking? Just to get the same guy anyway? Or a slightly lesser player with one less year of control?
Would that really be better?
2. Take a look at the draft board and who remains on it at the Steelers’ other positions of need.
No centers were drafted in the first round. Only one tight end (Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons) and two inside linebackers besides Tulsa’s Zaven Collins (Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys; Jamin Davis, Washington) were taken. Four offensive tackles with at least a second-round grade on ESPN.com‘s rating system remain.
Other players the Steelers were said to covet — such as Collins and Virginia Tech offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw — were gone by the time they got on the clock. So were cornerbacks Jaycee Horn (South Carolina) and Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech).
Does any of that … help?
Actually, should any of this help be necessary? Again, the worst rushing team in football just got the best running back in the draft at pick No. 24, and they didn’t have to trade up to do it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the draft board sets up nicely for Friday night.
You want “value”? I value when the Steelers avoid overcomplicating things and take a simple solution when it presents itself.
They did that by drafting Najee Harris.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.
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