Najee Harris’ Days in Pittsburgh May Already Be Numbered

Najee Harris

Getty Steelers RB Najee Harris (left) and head coach Mike Tomlin (right).

In life, words usually have consequences, especially when commenting on the motivational tactics of bosses. In the NFL, those consequences often come with dollar signs, especially if you’re a running back who speaks out without taking his contract situation into account.

Such is the case with Najee Harris, who chose to respond to Mike Tomlin’s comments about the Steelers offense needing to regain its mojo.

“Mike T just be talkin’ s***,” Harris told reporters after Pittsburgh’s Week 3 win. “You’re gonna have some games where stuff doesn’t go your way. All that matters is what you do the next play, the next game. I think that’s more of a challenge he gave us.”

Harris’ comments leaned toward the playful side, but if you do some cost accounting on his contract situation and possible future home, you have to hope for his sake that he’s renting, not buying.

Najee Harris By the Numbers

For Steelers fans, Harris has had a target number on his back for a while now, and it’s not No. 22. Harris has spent most of his career under the 4.0 yards per carry line, which is the bellwether mark for a bell cow back.

Some of the explanation for his average is simple. Harris is playing for a team going through a quarterback transition, and that kind of change can be tough on a back’s rushing stats.

Part of the criticism is about the way Harris runs. He’s tough between the tackles, and his ball security numbers are superb. But he mostly lacks the burst to bounce outside and break off long runs, which tends to leave Steelers fans longing for more. And with Jaylen Warren drawing accolades, Harris’ limitations have become even more pronounced.

The Contract Plot Twist

One area where the Steelers fans are getting more, unfortunately, is in the escalation of the money numbers in Harris’ rookie deal, the remainder of which covers this season and next.

Specifically, Pittsburgh is paying more for static production in the yards per carry category. Plus Harris’ receiving numbers dropped from 74 catches in 2021 to just 41 in 2022, with almost 250 receiving yards lost in the process.

The contract numbers are even more intriguing. Harris’ original deal was for $13 million over four years, with a cap hit for 2023 of just over $3.5 million. Even if the Steelers had considered cutting Harris when Warren flashed in training camp, his dead cap hit would have an onerous $7.8 million, according to Spotrac.

Next year, though, the numbers shift considerably. Harris is set to make a base salary of $2.4 million, plus the last installment of his pro-rated signing bonus, which is paid out and counts for $1.7 million against the cap.

That evens out both his cap hit and dead cap hit at just under $4.2 million, which makes him far more expendable. Especially with Jaylen Warren on the books for just under a million dollars next year, with a cap hit of a minuscule $4,000. That’s found-under-the-couch-cushion money for any NFL team. 

Would the Steelers Trade for Jonathan Taylor?

This, of course, is the million-dollar question, although it would cost a lot more than that to swap out Harris and bring Jonathan Taylor into the fold.

Taylor would instantly become a dream weapon for Mike Tomlin, and he’d take a ton of pressure off of Kenny Pickett as a developmental move. He’d also basically duplicate Harris’ recent stat line as a receiver; for the last two years, Taylor has averaged close to 40 catches a year. 

As you might expect, there’s a catch here—two of them, actually. One is the money it would cost to sign Taylor to an extension, which would be significant.

Even more significant, though, is the asking price. Colts owner Jim Irsay has been spewing out contrary quotes about Taylor since his injury situation came to a head during training camp, and his exorbitant demands—a first-round pick or package of picks, according to ESPN’s Stephen Holder—would likely put the kibosh on any prospective deal.

Still, it’s fun to dream. And it will be even more fun to watch the back-and-forth between Tomlin and Harris if the latter can’t do better than 139 yards in three games and keep his yards per carry average above that pivotal 4.0 line.

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