Looking into Steelers' rookie extension candidates and what they might get

The Steelers have a pair of players whose rookie contracts will expire soon; What would it take to keep them around on an extension?

Pittsburgh Steelers, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth
Pittsburgh Steelers, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth / Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have missed on plenty of draft picks during the final five years of the Kevin Colbert era. For Kevin Colbert, the 2018 draft until his final send-off in 2022 was the roughest patch of his career in terms of finding cornerstone players in the draft, as you could argue that Alex Highsmith and George Pickens were the only foundational pieces they added during his five-year span.

Most of the players they drafted since 2018 are already off the roster or even out of the NFL. However, for several who still remain, it's time for the Steelers to start talking about their future with the team and whether or not they should stick around for the long haul.

Two players will soon have expiring rookie contracts, and Pittsburgh's front office needs to make some business decisions. Here are the two extension candidates on the Steelers and what they might get on their next deal.

Najee Harris is headed toward a fifth-year option, but what would he get on an extension?

Let's start with Najee Harris. Mike Tomlin clearly loves Najee's leadership and he has been enthralled with the bruising running back even before spending a first-round pick to acquire the Alabama product. There seems to be little debate that a fifth-year option is coming his way this offseason. While Jaylen Warren is arguably the best running back on the team, Najee and Warren make up one of the league's better RB duos, and Tomlin doesn't want that to change.

However, an extension isn't out of the question for Najee Harris either. Obviously, the former first-round pick will want to get paid based on his production -- earning 1,000-yard seasons in three straight years to begin his NFL career.

Teams have wised up when it comes to paying good running backs elite money, but the Steelers may not be immune to this. There's no chance Harris gets upwards of $16 million per season like Christian McCaffrey. He will likely fall somewhere between the James Conner and Aaron Jones range -- putting his average annual earnings around $8-11 million per season on his new deal.

Pittsburgh cannot afford to fall into this trap. Harris certainly hasn't been the most efficient running back, and this money is better used elsewhere. Najee has become a solid and consistent player, but this is too much for a RB who might not even be the best on his own team.

Pat Freiermuth needs a new deal, but does he fit the Steelers plans?

Pat Freiermuth is the other Steelers player on a rookie contract who could earn an extension soon. Typically, Pittsburgh hands out these extensions just before a player is about to enter their final season under contract. This will be the case for Freiermuth.

While Freiermuth was taken in the same 2021 draft as Najee Harris, as a second-round pick, the Steelers don't have the ability to give him a fifth-year option. This means that Pat could hit free agency in 2025 unless Pittsburgh locks him up long-term or is willing to slap the franchise tag on him before free agency next year.

What makes this tricky is figuring out whether or not Freiermuth will even fit with the new offense in Pittsburgh. On paper, Freiermuth's skillset does not seem to be a match for what new OC Arthur Smith would like to do. Though Smith does use a lot of tight ends, he needs great blockers for his wide zone scheme to work effectively (which Freiermuth is not).

Health is another major factor here, as Freiermuth has been routinely banged up early in his career. Last year, he suffered a hamstring injury that forced him out of action for much of the season, and he already has a history of concussions.

Because of this, the Steelers can't afford to overpay for a tight end who isn't an ideal blocker and has a lengthy injury history. Darren Waller is the highest-paid tight end in the NFL in terms of yearly value, but Freiermuth has not been as productive as a receiver. Most likely, Pat would end up making $12-14 million per season on his new deal. This would put him in the range of players like Dawson Knox, David Njoku, and Evan Engram while still being behind guys like Mark Andrews and Dallas Goedert.