While the Pittsburgh Steelers spent a first-round draft pick on running back Najee Harris in the 2021 NFL Draft, there’s a great need for the black and gold to find a consistent, reliable backup to the budding star ball carrier ahead of the 2022 NFL season, according to NFL.com’s Maurice Jones-Drew.
Jones-Drew, a former nine-year NFL running back with the Jacksonville Jaguars and then-Oakland Raiders, knows a thing or two about having a reliable secondary running back behind a highly-touted starter, having spent time in Jacksonville with future Hall of Fame running back Fred Taylor and dependable No. 2 Rashad Jennings late in his career. Jones-Drew also found himself paired with Darren McFadden and Latavius Murray for his final season in Oakland, showing just how valuable a deep, talented running back room can be.
The way things look now, that simply is the furthest description possible from the Steelers’ outlook on the depth chart at running back behind Harris.
Harris, who touched the football 381 times as a rookie, did not have any sort of reliable backup running back behind him. Benny Snell Jr. did very little as Harris’s backup, rushing 36 times for just 98 yards, adding two receptions for 13 yards on the year. Add in the production (or lack thereof) from Kalen Ballage — 12 carries, for 36 yards; two catches for eight yards — and Anthony McFarland (three carries, three years; one catch, 11 yards) and it’s quite clear the Steelers need to get some help behind Harris, whether that’s in free agency or through the draft.
“Harris’ rookie season proved he’s the type of bell-cow back Mike Tomlin wants to employ,” Jones-Drew writes. “A bruising runner with room to grow as a pass-catcher, Harris will remain the engine of the Steelers’ offense regardless of who is under center in 2022. But Pittsburgh needs to find a reliable backup to take some pressure off. Neither Snell nor Ballage fit the bill last season. McFarland projected as a shifty change-of-pace option coming out of college as a fourth-round pick but has yet to prove he has staying power. Finding a speed back to pair with Harris should be in play for Pittsburgh this offseason.”
Obviously Mike Tomlin and the Steelers prefer to have that true bellcow-type running back as the focal point of the offense, which Harris fits to a T. However, the workload and the amount of hits Harris took as a rookie behind a bad offensive line and in a poor offense in general has to be a bit concerning.
The Steelers believe in running the wheels off of guys at the option and then discarding them when the time is right, but if Harris is going to be a key focal point of the offense as the Steelers begin the search for the next franchise quarterback, they need to ensure Harris stays healthy for as long as possible, and that starts by limiting his workload overall, at least in comparison to his rookie year.
Adding a name or two to the running backs room this off-season has to be a key step for the Steelers, whether that’s a veteran free agent like a name like a Jerick McKinnon, Giovani Bernard, or Phillip Lindsay, just to name a few, or through the draft on Day 3. Harris isn’t Superman, and it would be additional poor draft investment if the Steelers don’t add behind the standout rookie running back to ensure he’s around for the long term.