The Steelers seemed like a team that knew what it wanted prior to the start of the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday night in Cleveland. After quickly selecting Alabama running back Najee Harris at 24, they still look like a team that got exactly what it wanted.
Obviously, it was; it always is when a team isn’t picking first overall, and even then, the name often isn’t truly known until commissioner Roger Goodell announces it shortly after 8 p.m. EST.
Truth is, the Steelers, a team with perceived needs at multiple positions, could have rightfully gone in any number of directions with their first-round pick. Running back, cornerback, center, offensive tackle, linebacker—they were all on the table as realistic possibilities. And that remained the case even when the Steelers’ time on the clock finally started ticking some time after 11 p.m. EST. Teven Jenkins, the big, brawling tackle from Oklahoma State, was still on the board; Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the gifted linebacker from Notre Dame, had to be a tantalizing possibly for an organization that loves those kinds of athletes at that particular position; Greg Newsome II, the cornerback from Northwestern, was still around; heck, even the top centers, including Alabama’s Landon Dickerson and Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey, were still there for the taking.
As for the first-round caliber running backs, they were all still there at 24. The Steelers had their choice of Najee Harris from Alabama, Travis Etienne from Clemson, and Javonte Williams from North Carolina.
But while it may still have seemed like a mystery at that point, was it really?
If you read the room (insiders) in the days leading up to the draft, it just had to be Harris at 24, right? Every national and local Steelers/NFL insider included Harris among a small handful of players Pittsburgh had honed in on.
Some had Harris listed as the only prospect the Steelers had their eye on.
When the Bears traded up from 20 to 11 and drafted Ohio State’s Justin Fields, the fourth quarterback taken off the board, it ended THAT speculation for Steelers fans. Yes, Alabama’s Mac Jones was still there, but even if he made it past New England at 15 (spoiler alert, he didn’t), Pittsburgh wasn’t going to blow its first true heir apparent wad on a guy who just happened to be rated where he was because of his position.
When the Jets moved up from 23 to 14th and drafted Alija Vera-Tucker, an offensive lineman from USC and not the running back New York was supposed to use its second first-round pick on, you knew the Steelers were going to have their choice of at least one of the running backs.
After the Dolphins used their second first-round pick (18th, overall) to take Hurricanes edge-rusher Jaelan Phillips, it became apparent Pittsburgh would have its choice of ALL the running backs.
However, even with all the running backs still on the board at 24—and to repeat, a few players from other positions that would have been sensible possibilities—it just felt like it was going to be Harris.
Lots of people are assuming that if Virginia Tech tackle Christian Darrisaw, who went to the Vikings at pick 23, was still there, he would have easily been the Steelers’ choice.
Some are even talking in absolutes and insisting that the Cardinals, who picked all the way up there at 16, screwed Pittsburgh out of its certain pick—Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins.
We’ll never know for sure, but did you see how quickly the Steelers got their pick in after they went on the clock? It was less than two minutes by my count. They made the Jaguars, who were on the clock for approximately 172,800 minutes prior to the start of Thursday’s draft and STILL used about eight more before officially taking Trevor Lawrence, look downright indecisive by comparison.
Anyway, swiftness isn’t what one expects when a team is unsure of which player it wants to take.
As general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin spoke to the media shortly after drafting Harris, they had the look of a duo whose pre-draft plan came to fruition. They looked confident. They looked pleased.
Finally, we can continue to have debates about whether or not Najee Harris was the right choice at 24, and we have and will continue to do so long after the draft is complete.
As for the Steelers, they don’t seem to have any doubts.