Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Spare me the anguish over the Steelers taking a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft.

It doesn’t matter what has happened at the running back position in the draft in recent years. If there hasn’t been a running back selected in the first round of those drafts, it’s because there wasn’t a back that warranted the use of a high pick.

This year was different.

Not only did the Steelers take Alabama’s Najee Harris with the 24th pick in the first round, the Jaguars followed that up one pick later by taking another running back, Clemson’s Travis Etienne.

Typically, when you’re picking in the bottom half of the first round, you’re getting the third, fourth or even fifth-ranked player at a particular position.

But because the Steelers were willing to go against the grain and take a running back in the first round, they got the top-rated running back in this year’s draft.

The Steelers are always happy about their picks – who isn’t? But in this case, the elation about getting the draft’s top-rated running back was palpable.

“Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft and it was very exciting for him to be available for us,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back.

“He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level. There’s times where you think he should just be going down and all of a sudden he finds six, seven, eight yards. It’s just really exciting to get what we think is a three-down back and add him to the team.”

It’s especially exciting, to use a word Colbert mentioned multiple times to describe Harris, because the Steelers not only didn’t have a starting-caliber running back on their roster, they haven’t had a starting-caliber running back since 2017.

That was the last full season the Steelers had Le’Veon Bell. And since then, they’ve ranked 29th or lower in rushing attempts and yards each season, including dead last in 2020.

Fixing that running game in this draft was job No. 1. And the Steelers feel Harris is a big first step in doing that.

The Steelers will have a running game in 2021 for the first time since Bell left after the 2017 season. James Conner had streaks and spurts where he provided one. But Conner couldn’t stay healthy, missing 12 games in three seasons as the starter and large portions of several other games because of injuries.

With Conner gone in free agency, signing with the Cardinals, the Steelers were in the market for a new lead back to head a running back room that also includes Benny Snell, free-agent signee Kalen Ballage, Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels.

And they wanted someone accustomed to handling a heavy workload. Over the past two seasons he’s handled 209 and 251 carries without issue. For his career, he had 638 carries – again, without missing time, appearing in 55 games.

“I think that’s to his credit,” Colbert said. “Sometimes you look at that and say, well, the wear and tear, he’s already got this many carries, but I always look at it the other way. He was a durable player, again, in an NFL-type running offense in what is one of the toughest leagues in college football. I view it as a positive because he was very durable for Alabama.”

After dealing with Conner’s injury issues, that’s what the Steelers were looking for, a dynamic runner who is going to show the best ability – availability.

Some fans and pundits felt the Steelers should have addressed their offensive line first. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva remains a free agent. Center Maurkice Pouncey retired. Left guard Matt Feiler signed as a free agent with the Chargers.

But those three players helped the Steelers average a league-worst 3.6 yards per carry in 2020. It was not, however, all on the offensive line.

Conner averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season. All of the Steelers’ other backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry. A good back, which Conner was when healthy, had some success.

The Steelers believe Harris is better than just a good back. They feel he will be great.

“He was a player that we really valued,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We were ecstatic that he was there, and we took him and we took him pretty quickly with little to no dialogue.”

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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