One of the great philosophical debates surrounding the game of football right now, at least at the NFL level, is the value of running back as a position, and what sort of investments it makes sense to expend on them. The Pittsburgh Steelers showed their regard for the idea that you shouldn’t use a first-round pick on the position when they did just that, drafting Najee Harris at 24.
The running back position has been devalued for about a good decade now, without a great many exceptions. You have had a few running backs that got drafted really high, like Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley, and some who have gotten paid, like Derrick Henry. But it is the position with arguably the biggest question as to the high-end shelf-life of a second contract.
These ideas seep into every facet of the draft process, including the prospects. The running backs are very aware of the idea that it’s a popular belief that they shouldn’t be drafted in the first round. Harris knows this — he even questioned himself whether or not he would go on the first day — and it motivates him to prove that notion wrong.
“I’m sure there were other teams, but me personally, like even all the stuff that you see online, I did not — I can’t really say I expected that, especially being a running back,” he said of being drafted by the Steelers, and in the first round, via transcript. “You expect a bunch of stuff, but for it to actually happen, I didn’t really think that was going to happen.”
Most years, you only see one or two running backs drafted in the first round. This year, only two were taken, with Travis Etienne going to the Jacksonville Jaguars one pick after the Steelers drafted Harris, which is a bit high. Only one was drafted a year ago, with the final pick of the round.
“Yeah, it was extremely frustrating, especially having this draft party and inviting everybody out and not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said of the anxiety of understanding how the running back position is valued and whether or not that would mean he has to wait to get picked. “But yeah, I don’t like it. I don’t agree on it, but I’m not making the decisions.”
“I can give numerous reasons why we shouldn’t be devalued,” he said of the running back position, “but just knowing that, hey, you’re better than all these guys, it’s just that you play running back, so we don’t know what’s going to happen, when they’re going to start drafting running backs. Just to finally see it happen, I’m blessed.”
The AFC North is shaping up to be one of the best divisions in the league for the running back position. The Cleveland Browns already have the established Nick Chubb, one of the top backs in the league, while J.K. Dobbins had a very promising rookie season in Baltimore a year ago. Add in Joe Mixon in Cincinnati and now Harris bringing his talents to the South Side, and this is going to be one physical corner of the league.