Roughly nine months ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the subject of ridicule for failing to address the offensive line — specifically the tackle positions — in the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, instead taking Alabama running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth in the first two rounds in an effort to try and help the Steelers compete one final season with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm.
Despite how Harris and Freiermuth performed all season long, holding down pivotal roles on the Steelers’ offense, the decision to draft a running back and a tight end in the first two rounds continues to be ridiculed by the national media and a significant portion of the fan base.
Maybe today that ends.
Harris, who rushed for a Steelers’ rookie record 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns on 307 carries and added 464 yards and three touchdowns on 74 receptions, was named to Pro Football Focus’s top 25 rookies from the 2021 season, as was Freiermuth. The Penn State product finished his rookie season with an impressive 497 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 60 catches, serving as a key security blanket for Roethlisberger in the middle of the field.
Though the rebuilt offensive line certainly struggled and rookie third-round pick Kendrick Green was ultimately benched for poor play while Kansas City Chiefs’ rookie center Creed Humphrey — a popular player among the national media and fanbase as a Steelers’ fit leading up to the draft — has taken the league by storm, quickly developing into one of the top centers in the NFL.
Despite the potential miss on Humphrey, the Steelers were one of just five teams with two or more rookies on PFF’s top 25 list, joining the likes of the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Las Vegas Raiders.
Freiermuth clocked in at No. 15 in the rankings, sandwiching himself in between Raiders’ safety Trevor Moehring and Broncos’ cornerback Patrick Surtain II.
“Freiermuth may not be the same dynamic athlete Kyle Pitts is, but the 6-foot-5, 258-pound tight end’s play strength has been a highlight,” PFF’s Anthony Treash writes. “The former Penn State Nittany Lion’s 10 contested catches and 11 broken tackles after the catch are tied for sixth among tight ends.”
The rookie tight end acclimated to the NFL faster than anyone could have imagined, putting up an impressive stat line while becoming a key focal point of the Steelers’ offense, especially in the red zone.
With his ability to not only make contested catches, but also break tackles after the catch, the future is rather bright for Freiermuth.
As for Harris, it’s been quite evident all season long just how special Harris is and will continue to be as the Steelers build around him with an offensive line and a new face under center in the years to come.
Though there will always be debate about drafting a running back in the first round for the rest of Harris’s career, he’s lived up to the hype and been as advertised. Harris lands at No. 23 in PFF’s rankings, sliding in between Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Nick Bolton and New Orleans Saints’ linebacker Pete Werner.
“Pittsburgh molded Harris into a workhorse, giving him the second-most rushing attempts (307) and most targets (97) among running backs,” Treash writes. “Harris wasn’t an explosive runner by any means, but he at least never put the ball in harm’s way with no fumbles. He also had a knack for running through defenders after the catch as a receiver, with 35 broken tackles in the passing game — 14 more than any other back this season.”
Harris doesn’t put the football on the ground at all, avoids the killer mistake time and time again, and is an absolute load to bring to the ground, which can wear on defenses throughout games.
He was undoubtedly a workhorse in his rookie season, which is what the Steelers were expecting when they drafted him at No. 23 overall. While the explosive plays aren’t there — they never were in college either; it’s not who he is — Harris has come on strong down the stretch, becoming that true No. 1 back the Steelers envisioned he would be.
For all the handwringing about drafting Harris and not trying to get someone like a Javonte Williams in the second round, it’s also worth noting Harris graded out better than Williams and ranked higher in PFF’s top 25 than the Broncos’ young running back.
With Harris and Freiermuth as the headliners of the draft class, a guy like Dan Moore Jr. holding down left tackle for the foreseeable future, young interior offensive lineman like Kendrick Green who still has some promise despite his benching, and defensive pieces in Isaiahh Loudermilk and The Norwood, it’s safe to say General Manager Kevin Colbert did well in the 2021 NFL Draft for the Steelers.