Steelers should be applauded for declining Najee Harris' fifth-year option

Omar Khan is being questioned for declining Najee Harris' fifth-year option, but the data shows why he should be celebrated.
New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Steelers are starting to make anti-Kevin Colbert moves... and I love it. After breaking several decade-long draft trends, new GM Omar Khan threw Steelers fans through a loop by not picking up the fifth-year option for running back, Najee Harris.

Harris, a first-round pick under Colbert in 2021, opened his NFL career with three straight 1,000-yard seasons. But Khan isn't getting fooled by raw numbers. He means business.

After struggling to earn explosive plays in his first two seasons, Harris finally got rolling in Year 3. Najee notched 1,035 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns in 17 games and finished 10th in the NFL in breakaway run rate, according to

Unfortunately, this didn't equate to an efficient season for the former first-round pick.

Though Najee finally found some running room on the ground, he finished just 36th in true yards per carry and 46th in yards per touch. Dissecting his 2023 season further, Harris finished 46th in the NFL in yards before contact per attempt, per advanced stats from Pro Football Reference -- below players like Tyler Allgeier, AJ Dillon, and Kareem Hunt. This indicates that it takes him some time to get the wheels turning (something that is noticeable on tape).

Steelers' decision to decline Najee's fifth-year option was easier than you think

I want to give credit where credit is due: Najee Harris had his best season in 2023 and proved to be a quality running back. But that doesn't mean the Pittsburgh Steelers made a mistake by not handing him the fifth-year option.

At just $6.79 million for the 2025 season, the price on the fifth-year option is affordable enough for a running back, and the Steelers would have had no issue at all making this work. However, this decision was less about the money and more about the direction of the team.

Najee's ability to stay healthy is certainly an asset, but he's not even the best running back in Pittsburgh. The deeper you dive into the situation, the easier it is to why the Steelers didn't need to think long and hard about declining Harris' fifth-year option.

Jaylen Warren has been one of the most efficient running backs in the NFL since joining the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2022, and there's no reason to expect that to suddenly change. His combination of quickness, burst, and contact balance make him the best option from the backfield for Pittsburgh, and as a receiver, it's not remotely close between Warren and Harris.

Warren finished 6th in the NFL in yards before contact per rush thanks to his ability to get upfield in a hurry. Additionally, his 3.7 yards after contact per carry ranked 3rd in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, as he ranked 2nd in the league in yards per carry (5.3).

The amount of wear and tear plays a significant factor as well. While Najee Harris has compiled nearly 1,500 rushes from college to the NFL, Warren has less than half the tread off his tires with 633 carries during his college and NFL careers combined.

Furthermore, we don't know how Harruis will look in Arthur Smith's wide zone offense. His skill set is better suited for a gap scheme due to his lack of lateral speed and quickness. Meanwhile, it's easy to envision Warren's talents being utilized in a wide-zone rushing scheme.

Simply put, Warren is a younger, fresher, more efficient running back than Harris with far more tread left on the tires. The Steelers would be unwise to pay both players, and Warren is entering a contract year. There's no sense in tying fully guaranteed money to a running back like Harris who could be on the decline and will be 27-and-a-half years old by the time the 2025 season starts.

Studies from PFF have shown that most running backs hit their peak as early as age 24, and their efficiency and production decline rapidly at age 27 and beyond.

The collection of these factors makes it easy for Omar Khan to hit the 'pass' button on the fifth-year option for Najee Harris. Instead of being criticized by fans who overvalue raw numbers, the Pittsburgh Steelers should be applauded for this decision.