Predicting why Steelers declined Najee Harris' fifth-year option (and what's next)

With the Steelers declining the fifth-year option for Najee Harris, here are three logical outcomes.
Dec 23, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22)
Dec 23, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have decided not to opt for the fifth-year option on running back, Najee Harris. That by itself does not seem surprising. Harris had said things in the last two years that would lead one to question his consideration of signing a new contract when his current one expired.

But what happens next?

Whether Harris will choose to explore the free agency market is a toss-up. However, this decision could be a gamble. In recent years, other Steelers who tested free agency were left empty-handed, with no substantial offers, returning to the Steelers for one-year contracts. This happened to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Terrell Edmunds.

Thus, there are a few scenarios that could occur in 2025. Some scenarios have Harris returning to
Steelers and at least one see Harris going elsewhere at the end of the season. It will be intriguing to see how it all plays out.

Predicting the reasons why Steelers declined Najee's fifth-year option

Harris is not the worst running back in the NFL; he's just not the best one, either. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards each season, which ordinarily would be good, but he has gotten there by being an unproductive running back.

In his rookie season, he did rush for 70.6 yards a game; however, in 2022 and 2023, he has only rushed for 60 yards a game. It didn't help that his carries declined, but credit Jaylen Warren for his dynamic rushing.

Harris is still only averaging 3.9 yards a carry for his career, despite what looked like an improvement late in the season after the Steelers sacked Matt Canada. Thus, some of his lackluster play on the field play on the field may have a relation to Canada's putrid play calling. Some of it also resulted from an offensive line that had not gelled late in the season.

Considering the Steelers enhanced their offensive line in the draft, the offensive line should provide Harris ample running lanes -- not all because of the new offensive line talent. Add new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith into the fray, and we could be looking at a different player in 2024.

The career path that ultimately plays out for Najee Harris largely depends on him.

Scenarios for Najee Harris in 2024

First, Harris could have a career season if the changes to the Steelers in 2024 are productive. If his production begins to near 4.25 yards per attempt or grossly exceeds that, and he stays healthy, then there is little doubt the Steelers could offer him a new deal before the season ends or quickly after that.

The problem is that a stellar season could prompt other teams to make offers, and Harris might take his time deciding. The only potential problem for Harris is his age and how much teams are willing to spend.

Scenario two is that Harris shows little to no improvement. If that occurs, it could spell disaster for Harris. If he cannot improve with the extra talent on the offensive line, it would be easy for one to conclude there is a problem with Najee Harris.

Other teams could easily conclude that. It would be hard to envision any team offering a long-term multi-million-dollar contract if it occurs. Najee will be under enormous pressure in 2024. If no other teams come calling, The Steelers could re-sign him for much less than if they had opted for his fifth-year option.

The last scenario is perhaps chillingly realistic. While Omar Khan will never say it directly, he might not want Harris back in a Steelers uniform. It's glaringly apparent he has slowly rid the Steelers of Keven Colbert's draft picks, fixing what he considered perceivable mistakes from the previous general manager. Part of that was sending Kenny Pickett to the Eagles.

Khan may like Jaylen Warren more. Beyond question, Warren is more than capable of starting if needed. Plus, bringing Warren into training had more to do with Mike Tomlin at that point than Kevin Colbert.

Anything could happen, and if the Steelers have a successful run in 2024, it's not beyond pale to see Harris return to the Steelers. However, if you're a betting person, it might not be smart to bet the farm that he is a shoo-in to return for the 2025 campaign.

Ultimately, 2025 has a slightly deeper running back draft class than 2024 and even 2021's Najees draft class. Do not expect him to return next year unless this running back named Harris does something as immaculate in 2024 as his 1972 counterpart did.