PITTSBURGH (AP) – The conversation was short. Maybe because there really wasn’t a reason to have one.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were on the clock. Alabama star Najee Harris was available. During an opening round of the NFL draft that lagged at times, the Steelers practically made NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sprint to the podium. The sooner the Steelers could bring Harris into the fold – and more importantly, into the backfield alongside quarterback Ben Roethlisberger – the better.
Pittsburgh is turning to the explosive Harris to give the NFL‘s worst running game a jolt while simultaneously providing Roethlisberger with another playmaker in the huddle in what could be his final season.
The Steelers selected Harris with the 24th overall pick Thursday night, confident he can help a rushing attack that finished 32nd in the NFL in yards rushing in 2020.
Unlike at Alabama, Harris likely won’t have to wait around for his opportunity in Pittsburgh. The running game has been erratic at best since Le’Veon Bell’s All-Pro season in 2017. James Conner had trouble staying healthy in four seasons before leaving in free agency earlier this month. Benny Snell was erratic at best last season, and Anthony McFarland Jr. saw little playing time. Rather than use their top pick on an offensive lineman after losing three starters in retirement or free agency, the Steelers instead made Harris the first running back they’ve selected in the first round since Rashard Mendenhall in 2009. “We were ecstatic he was there, and we took him quickly with little to no dialogue,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Maybe because Harris‘ actions during his four years at Alabama spoke so loudly.
The 6-foot-1, 232-pounder ran for 3,843 yards and 46 touchdowns in four seasons with the Crimson Tide, including 26 last falls while helping Alabama to the national title. He also evolved into a capable receiver out of the backfield, catching 43 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns as a senior.
It’s a year Harris felt he owed himself after what he considered a subpar 2019, at least by his own high standards. So rather than enter the 2020 draft, he opted to return for one more run with the Crimson Tide, becoming a star on a team full of them in the process.