Jerome Bettis calls criticism of Najee Harris unfair

The Pittsburgh Steelers made the difficult decision to decline RB Najee Harris’ fifth-year option earlier this month. He will therefore become an unrestricted free agent next March, unless a deal is reached before the start of the season. Harris has been solid, but first-round running backs are a dying breed and expectations are very high when taken at that level these days. He surpassed the 1,000 rushing yard mark in all three seasons and did not miss a game.

He just hasn’t been very effective compared to his NFL peers, and even compared to Jaylen Warren, the undrafted free agent RB who has forced a near-even split of offensive snaps with his explosive play. As a result, Harris received quite a bit of criticism, but Hall of Fame RB Jerome Bettis doesn’t think the criticism is warranted.

“You have to look at the offensive line,” Bettis said via the Zach Gelb Show on Infinity Sports Network posted on YouTube. “His first year, the offensive line was horrible. His second year, they were bad. And his senior year, they were a little, maybe average, a little below average.

“So he found himself behind a group that did not exploit its potential. They’ve kind of made a resurgence. They have a few draft picks. They thought about the offensive line…and now I believe he’ll be running behind the best offensive line he’s had in all his years in Pittsburgh.

Gelb asked if he would call Harris’ criticism unfair, and Bettis replied, “Absolutely.”

Harris’ best season came as a rookie when he gained 1,200 yards on 307 rushing attempts with seven rushing touchdowns. He added 467 receiving yards that year on 74 receptions and three more touchdowns. It was his highest yards per touch average (4.4) of his career. He’s become less important in the receiving game over the past two seasons, but his efficiency as a runner has actually increased, going from 3.9 yards per carry as a rookie to 4.1 yards per carry in 2023 .

Still, compared to Warren’s efficiency of 5.3 yards per carry in 2023, Harris doesn’t seem like the best option.

But Bettis is right. The offensive line play hasn’t been very good throughout Harris’ career in Pittsburgh. In 2021, he had Dan Moore Jr., Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Most of those players are off the roster now, and Moore looks to be the replacement for 2024. They’ve slowly started rebuilding the line from some of those draft mistakes and have really stepped up over the past couple seasons.

They signed Isaac Seumalo as a free agent last year and drafted Broderick Jones in the first round. In 2024, they used three of their first five picks on offensive linemen, including their top two picks on Troy Fautanu and Zach Frazier.

Mike Tomlin called the decision to decline the layer option, but reports indicated they wanted to see how the running backs hold up to Arthur Smith’s new offensive system that emphasizes wide zone concepts. Something Harris appears to be preparing for, with reports he has lost weight and looks more agile.

Harris has every chance this season to have the best season of his career and enter free agency with the highest market value he has ever had. In a way, he should thank the Steelers for declining his option.