With the 2022 NFL Draft now just weeks away, it is as fitting a time as any for us to now turn our attentions backward to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft class of 2021, looking back on their first year in the league and what their futures look like at this point. The team got an inordinate amount of playing time from their rookie class last season, with almost every draft pick contributing significantly.
In all, the Steelers held nine draft selections, including one in the fifth round after they traded a 2022 fourth-round draft pick for one, so they won’t have one this year. They had at least one selection in every round, with two in the fourth and two in the seventh.
Their first four selections were all on offense, the first time in history they used their first four selections on one side of the ball. Their next four draft picks were all defensive players, but they finished their class with one special-teams selection.
The Steelers had one clear overarching objective last offseason, and that was to improve the run game. They figured—rightly or wrongly, and I know many will say wrongly—that the best way to do that was to add an elite running back to the mix.
That is what they did in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft with the selection of Najee Harris out of Alabama, the first running back taken in the entire draft, though not the only one taken in the first round that year.
It was tough sledding for him during most of his rookie season, largely because the Steelers had a piecemeal offensive line blocking in front of him that included two rookies that they drafted after him, and four new starters in all. But he warmed up as the season progressed.
All told, he finished the year with 1,667 yards from scrimmage, which was a Steelers rookie record, with 10 total touchdowns, including seven rushing and three receiving. He rushed for 1,200 yards on 307 carries, but he added another 74 touches via reception, picking up another 467 yards through the air.
Harris logged 980 snaps during the regular season, and only really ever missed much time when he got dinged up. A late-season arm injury in the regular-season finale was an issue, however.
He went through the entire regular season on a league-leading 381 touches without ever fumbling, which was an NFL rookie record and among the highest totals in any season without fumbling, but he did fumble during the team’s lone postseason game—surely influenced by his compromised ball-handling arm due to injury.
A powerful, physical, yet also nimble runner with good vision, with good hands and a willingness to block, the only thing that Harris really lacks in his game is elite speed, which he’s not going to find at this point in his career. Long breakaway runs will never be the norm for him, but with a better offensive line, they can certainly start hitting longer runs more frequently.