The Steelers' selection of Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick in the draft was largely hailed in Pittsburgh, where fans watched their team finish dead last in rushing in 2020. Pittsburgh's decision to draft Harris, however, was in stark contrast to the growing narrative surrounding running backs. Given their often short shelf lives, along with the fact that many current starters were mid-round picks, many feel that running backs no longer have first-round value.
General manager Kevin Colbert, who recently concluded his 22nd draft with the Steelers, does not subscribe to that narrative. For Colbert and the Steelers' brass, a player with first-round talent should be considered as a first-round pick, regardless of the position.
"We don't buy into that belief at all," Colbert told Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. "If a player we think is a very good player at the collegiate level, and we think he can be a very good player at the NFL level, regardless of the position, we'll take him in that first round if he's available."
Colbert knows what a Hall of Fame-caliber running back can do for a franchise. As the Lions' pro scouting director from 1990-99, he had a first-row seat to the exploits of Barry Sanders, who spearheaded six Detroit playoff appearances during the decade. In Pittsburgh, Colbert watched Jerome Bettis plow over defenders en route to helping the Steelers capture their fifth Lombardi Trophy. Both Sanders and Bettis were first-round picks in their respective drafts.
"We were fortunate on each team to have those people with us," Colbert said. "So, we don't buy into that. The only true value I search for is how many games can we win, and can these players help us win a Super Bowl."
Colbert clearly believes that Harris can help the Steelers win games. After starting his college career behind Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs, Harris finally got his opportunity to shine in 2019. The Alabama product made the most of his opportunity, as he rushed for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. Despite that success, Harris returned for his senior season to win a national championship and to solidify his place as college football's best running back.
Harris achieved both goals. In 13 games, he rushed for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also caught 43 passes and four touchdowns while showcasing his versatility out of the backfield. And after he was honored with the Doak Walker Award (given annually to college football's top running back), Harris gained 158 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in Alabama's victory over Ohio State in the College Football Championship.
Harris' tangibles and intangibles (his decision to drive nine hours to watch his teammates' pro day impressed the Steelers' brass) convinced the Steelers to put him on their draft board. And while they were not going to trade up to select him, Pittsburgh was more than happy to take Harris when he remained available with the 24th overall pick.
"Najee is a well-rounded running back that played in a pro system," Colbert said. "He made NFL runs routinely [at Alabama], and he can also play in the passing game, both as a receiver and a blocker. He's basically a three-down back coming from an NFL-like system plugging into a similar type system. He made NFL runs at the collegiate level, he did it at a high level. He helped them win a national championship. Hopefully, he can help us win some games."