“That dude is a bell cow. He’s gonna have to be a bell cow for us,” said Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, speaking about No. 1 running back Najee Harris during his recent appearance on The Pivot podcast. “If this train is going anywhere in 2022, he’s going to be a major component of it, and he’s capable,” added Tomlin, for emphasis.
All of that is almost certainly true, and Harris’ new-and-improved action figure-like physique suggests he’s as well-suited as any to being the 2022 version of a bell cow, equally adept and running and pass catching.
But it’s also in Tomlin’s interest to employ a back (or two) who can spell Harris. Even if he’s “capable,” it won’t be easy for the former first-round pick to maintain the workload he shouldered during his rookie season, when he had 307 carries for 1,200 yards and 74 receptions for another 467 yards, resulting in 10 total touchdowns. Harris was a part of 980 offensive snaps last season, or 84% of the team’s total, grinding his way to a 3.9 yards per carry average behind an offensive line that struggled with its run blocking all season long.
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Consider: Former Chargers 7th-Round Pick Justin Jackson
That said, Jake Rill of Bleacher Report suggests that free agent Justin Jackson “would be the ideal running back to fill (the) role” of being Harris’ primary backup, owing to his track record with the Los Angeles Chargers, who selected him No. 251 overall in 2018.
“The 26-year-old is capable of breaking off some big runs, even if he’s not touching the ball a ton in a given game. That’s why he’d be a great secondary option out of the Steelers’ backfield who could contribute in the passing game at times, too,” offers Rill.
During his four seasons in L.A., Jackson — who is listed at 6-feet-tall and 200 pounds — appeared in 43 games and made seven starts. All told, he has 206 career carries for 1,040 yards and four rushing touchdowns, an average of 5.0 yards per carry. He also has 65 career receptions (on 79 total targets) for 508 receiving yards, an average of 7.8 yards per reception, according to Pro Football Reference.
Pittsburgh’s Existing Depth Options at Running Back
As to whether Pittsburgh’s remaining salary cap space would best be spent on another running back (as opposed to an outside linebacker or offensive tackle), that depends on how one views the existing options.
At the moment, fourth-year back Benny Snell Jr., 24, would appear to be the front-runner for the RB2 job. The former fourth-round pick (2019) had a promising rookie year but his production has declined sharply in the time since and he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry and 6.5 yards per reception last year, per PFR.
“Snell has slimmed down and transformed his body into something more typical of a running back, which should help his quickness,” wrote Mark Kaboly of The Athletic earlier this week.
The next-most-likely player to win the No. 2 running back job might be 2020 fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland Jr., who “had a heck of a training camp last year, but it didn’t translate to the regular season,” notes Kaboly. Indeed, McFarland has averaged just 3.2 yards per rush (on 36 carries) during his first two seasons in the league, which hardly inspires confidence that he can take a big leap forward.
The Steelers also have a pair of rookie undrafted free agents in the fold, namely: Mataeo Durant (Duke), who received the “largest UDFA RB contract” in franchise history; and Jaylen Warren (Utah State/Oklahoma State), the latter of whom is wearing James Conner’s old No. 30.
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Of course, if Jackson does in fact sign with the Steelers, he won’t be able to wear No. 22 anymore, as he did during his last three seasons with the Chargers. Nor will he be able to wear No. 32, as he did during his rookie year, as 22 and 32 belong to Najee Harris and Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris, respectively.
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