Overreactions from Steelers Nation: Declining Najee Harris’ fifth-year option

Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.

With free agency and the NFL Draft highlighting the league’s offseason, there are a few more deadlines generating headlines before the regular season kicks off.

One of those deadlines is for exercising a fifth-year option on players originally drafted in the first round. Regardless of who their original team was, a player’s current team can option a player for a fifth season of their rookie contract but must decide on year in advance.

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Players who were selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and are now entering their fourth and potentially final year of their current rookie deals, could be extended under this clause. The extension operates much like a franchise tag, albeit for a lesser cash value, but also guarantees the money in full.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had two players they could’ve extended in the final year of their original contracts who fit these criteria. One is newly acquired backup quarterback Justin Fields, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round back in 2021. The other is the Steelers own pick, running back Najee Harris.

Ultimately, the team elected not to option either player, potentially making them free agents after this season.

For Fields the option didn’t make sense from a business perspective, as his option would carry somewhere around $24 million of guaranteed money: that’s too much for a backup quarterback.

For Harris, his price tag appeared to be affordable and fair, fetching in the ballpark of $6.5 million. That seemed to be a slam dunk for GM Omar Khan to exercise, yet the team did not: and fans are in an uproar. Suddenly, the narrative is that the team doesn’t want him and there are rumors of a trade swirling.

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Neither are likely true, so let’s think about this objectively. Just because the front office didn’t pick up Harris’ option doesn’t mean that the back’s career with the Steelers is over. There are a number of other avenues the Steelers could explore to retain Harris beyond the 2024 season.

The first would be an extension signed this offseason, which would spread out a guaranteed cap hit under the fifth-year option over several seasons. While it seems odd that the fifth-year price tag was affordable in both the figure and the cap hit, it’s not unusual for these deals to be ripped up soon after they’re used.

Another option for Pittsburgh could be using the franchise tag, should they pursue a similar path as they did to keep Le’Veon Bell with the team back in 2017. However, the cost of a franchise tag exceeds that of the fifth-year option on a rookie contract and would appear to be a foolish business move.

Also consider the lack of a new deal for Harris could create tension in the locker room throughout the offseason. That’s speculative at this time, but something that’s happened previously with Bell (franchise tag) and with T.J. Watt and Diontae Johnson (who were both seeking new contracts.)

Running back is also a position that’s been largely devalued in the NFL over the last several seasons. Backs have struggled to find big money or new deals with free agency: and the ones that do, oftentimes burnout shortly after inking the contract (such as Ezekiel Elliott.) The concerns of “wear and tear” and age (backs top out around age 30) are factored into moving on to younger, fresher bodies via the draft or using a committee approach in the backfield.

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The Steelers are no stranger to the committee approach as of late, having found an undrafted gem of a player with Jaylen Warren who has split time with Harris, giving the team a one-two punch attack. Warren’s ascension should make everyone optimistic, as his play could surpass that of Harris, making him the top back if Najee isn’t re-signed beyond this season.

The discovery of Warren also means Pittsburgh could find another running back, and do so anywhere in draft: or beyond. Despite Harris’ uncertain future with the franchise, the Steelers did not entertain bringing in any major replacements this offseason, forgoing free agency and the draft to acquire a running back. Their only “headline” addition is undrafted Georgia Bulldog Daijun Edwards.

The lack of other additions means the unnamed sources citing a “wait and see” approach with Harris under new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith could be true. It could also be “coach speak” for not wanting to tie themselves to Harris beyond 2024. Despite Harris gaining 1,000+ yards in each of his first three NFL seasons, there’s still questions about his play. Those yards were gained with an additional game in 17-game seasons, while his yards-per-carry have been 3.9, 3.8 and 4.1 each year.

It’s fair to cite that Harris has played with a poor offense, including the playcaller, quarterback and linemen, but those excuses go to the wayside as the slate is wiped clean of all for 2024. Najee Harris will have to showcase that he’s a feature back in the NFL, worth of a second contract, for the Steelers to oblige. Otherwise, we could see Harris’ value diminish as the team heads in a new direction with Jaylen Warren, who will be due for similar contract negotiations with 2024 and 2025 remaining on his current deal.

Regardless of the chatter, Najee Harris is a Pittsburgh Steeler for 2024 and that’s all that should matter as the team prepares for the upcoming season.

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