What does Najee Harris' future look like with a fifth-year option looming?

The Steelers will have a decision to make on Najee Harris as the deadline approaches.

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Seattle Seahawks / Conor Courtney/GettyImages

The decision on whether or not to pick up a player's fifth-year option is often very simple. Most players have proven by this point that they are either worth picking up the option, or are not worth the money as they have not lived up to expectations.

However, Najee Harris is not such a simple case, as he has been very reliable and productive during his NFL career, but he also plays the position with the shortest shelf-life in the NFL and hasn't quite lived up to the lofty expectations fans had for him when the team spent a first-round draft pick on him in 2021. There are positives and negatives to picking up the option, and the future of Harris in Pittsburgh is one worth discussing.

Picking up the Fifth-Year Option Should be a No-Brainer

While many would argue that Najee Harris has been a bit of a disappointment in his NFL career thus far, it is impossible to ignore how reliable and consistent he has been.

Thus far in his NFL career, Harris has played in all 17 games in each of his first 3 seasons and has topped 1000 yards rushing in each of those seasons as well. This kind of durability is hard to find at one of the league's most physically demanding positions. Add to that that he is the first player in franchise history to top 1000 yards rushing in his career, and it's easy to see that he is being overlooked by many.

Harris will turn 26 in March, and while some would argue, that due to his age, the team should decline his fifth-year option, I would argue the exact opposite. Regardless of whether or not the option is picked up, Harris will be a Steeler for at least one more season. Picking up the option would give him two more years as a Steeler before the team would have to decide on what to do with him.

One additional year of Harris would not be a huge risk, instead, it would be a smart move by Pittsburgh. Since Harris was a late first-round pick, his fifth-year option would not be very costly and would increase to a very affordable number. For Harris, the team declining the fifth-year option would likely be financially beneficial as he would likely command more on the open market than the expected $6.6 million he would make from the fifth-year option.

What Does Harris' Long-Term Future in Pittsburgh Look Like?

While I do believe that picking up the option should be a no-brainer, I do believe as of this point that that fifth-year in Pittsburgh will likely be his last. Signing a running back long-term has proven to be risky business, and he will be 28 years old when he hits free agency at that point.

There's always the option of the franchise tag, but as mentioned before, I don't believe Harris has lived up to the lofty expectations set for him when he was drafted. While I do not by any means view him as a bust, as he has been a very productive and reliable player, I don't think he has been good enough to justify paying him top dollar on the franchise tag, especially when he'll have already had five years of tread on his tires at the NFL level.

Unfortunately for Harris, I believe the correct course of action for the Steelers organization is to get as much as they can out of him while he's still young and affordable, and then look another direction after his rookie contract is completely done. While this isn't truly fair to running backs, until something changes with the CBA, this truly is the smartest and most cost-effective course of action for NFL organizations, except for in outlier situations like Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry who have bucked the trend.

This is not to say that there is no way that Harris can be back after his rookie contract ends, but if he seeks to get top dollar the Steelers should let him walk. However, if the time comes and he is still a productive player who has remained healthy, the Steelers may have interest in retaining him if the price is right. After all, Harris is a leader in the locker room and is the consummate professional, which are things that the Steelers value.

For now, though, the correct course of action is to let the lethal tandem of Harris and Warren continue to be a major part of the offense for the next two years. What happens after that could be anyone's guess, but in all likelihood keeping Harris for the entirety of his rookie deal and then moving on, is the way that history says is the right move.

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