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Declining Najee Harris’ 5th year option doesn’t necessarily mean his time with the Steelers is ending

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By: Tom Fox

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

2025 is a long ways away and much can change

What a crazy offseason it has been for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In February the Steelers released Mason Cole and never signed a replacement for the man who played every snap at center in 2023. They wouldn’t address the position for two months until they chose Zach Frazier in the second round of the draft. They brought in Russell Wilson, traded away Kenny Picket, and then traded for Justin Fields like it was a pilot episode of a new HGTV show called “Remake Your QB Room in 60 Minutes”.

The draft brought a few answers and even the winds of wide receiver trade rumors would subside. All that was left on the immediate docket was the decision on the fifth-year option for Najee Harris. There has now been enough time to process, and everyone who had strong feelings one way or the other has had a chance to voice their thoughts on the option being declined.

Yes, the Steelers refused to fully guarantee $6.79 million to Harris for the 2025 season. He remains under contract for 2024. This will also be the first year of Arthur Smith’s offense for the Steelers, and to this point, Smith has proven to be somewhat of a running back whisperer, if there is such a thing.

Consider former Titans running back Derrick Henry, who spent two years as a backup and went on to rush for 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first year as a starter (2018). Smith then became the offensive coordinator in 2019, and Henry immediately exploded to lead the league in rushing in back-to-back seasons, with 1,540 yards in 2019 and a ridiculous 2,027 yards in 2020.

With Atlanta in 2021, Smith would take a 30-year-old wide receiver/kick returner in Cordarrelle Patterson and turn him into a 600-yard running back. Proving it was no fluke, Patterson would run for another 695 yards in 2022. In 2022, Smith would get a 1,035-yard season out of fifth-round rookie Tyler Allgeier. So naturally, the Steelers would pick up the option on Harris and reap the rewards of the running back whisperer for next two seasons.

Except the Steelers didn’t pick up Narris’ fifth-year option. Gerry Dulac reported the reason why:

The Steelers want to wait and see how Harris and the team’s other running backs perform in new coordinator Arthur Smith’s offense before making a commitment, sources told the Post-Gazette.

On the surface, this doesn’t appear to make any sense. It came off as an excuse. The Steelers have had the opportunity to get to know Harris, including what he can and cannot do, for the last three seasons. Arthur Smith knew Harris would be the primary running back he would inherit. Smith has worked with all kinds of running backs, even ones that were wide receivers. How could it be that they don’t know how Harris will work in this offense?

Which Najee Harris will show up to training camp?

As a rookie in 2021, Harris would finish fourth in the league with 1,667 yards from scrimmage. Whether it was spurred by the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger putting more of a workload on him or just to be able to withstand the NFL pounding he was taking, Harris showed up at OTAs in May of 2022 looking noticeably stronger.

Reports came out that he weighed 244 after playing his rookie year at a listed weight of 232. He was more powerful but had lost a bit of quickness in the transformation. A staple of Smith’s offense is the outside zone run and the quickness to get outside is a plus. Harris was never considered a burner, but regaining a little giddy-up through offseason conditioning could be the difference in whether Harris has much upside for Smith or much of a future with the Steelers.

In this highlight from his rookie season, we see Harris with a burst to attack the line of scrimmage that seemed to be missing in 2023, as well as his agility to slide away from contact from the linebacker and continue his momentum toward the end zone.

In this next highlight Harris shows the linebacker a head fake to the inside before snapping his route out toward the sideline. Even with the defender nipping at his heels while making a 90-degree turn, Harris instantly regains his speed and can win a race to the pylon.

Going back to the Dulac quote, the Steelers reportedly want to “see how Harris and the team’s other running backs perform in new coordinator Arthur Smith’s offense”. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to see him perform in actual games. If Harris shows in training camp that he has regained some of the quickness displayed in these highlights, his future as a Steeler may extend beyond 2024.

The Steelers historically don’t work through contract extensions once the season begins. However, if Harris comes to training camp looking like the 2021 version of himself and displays a little more burst, they may get a deal done ahead of the season — before his stats potentially go through the roof, making him too expensive.

Originally posted on Behind the Steel Curtain – All Posts