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Steelers decline RB Najee Harris' fifth-year option 

Najee Harris' NFL career began with a first-round pick and plenty of expectations as Pittsburgh's new lead back.

How it ends -- at least in Pittsburgh -- remains to be seen. Harris' future was thrown into some doubt Thursday when NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero reported the Steelers were declining to pick up the running back's fifth-year option.

Pittsburgh is waiting to see how Harris performs in new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's offense before committing to anything beyond 2024, per Pelissero, with a future deal still possible.

This isn't the ideal development for a former first-round pick at a position that has become notorious for failing to provide long-term returns on investment. But it's not just about Harris' production, which peaked with a 1,200-yard, seven touchdown rookie season in 2021 -- it also relates to how the Steelers' backfield has evolved since then.

Backup runner Jaylen Warren has emerged as a legitimately viable ball-carrier in the last two seasons, more than a mere spellback. With Warren involved, the Steelers have two running backs capable of bashing through defenders on the ground -- and some have even gone so far as to suggest Warren might be the better of the two options.

Harris has consistently rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first three NFL seasons, but it hasn't come easy: Harris didn't break four yards per carry until 2023. Warren, meanwhile, has rushed for 5.1 yards per attempt in his first two seasons, albeit on fewer total carries.

In an age in which only a select few elite running backs are paid accordingly while the rest of the league opts for committee approaches, Harris finds himself stuck somewhere in between. He's also been forced to deal with the challenges of playing in former offensive coordinator Matt Canada's system, which was so anemic that coach Mike Tomlin finally fired Canada during the 2023 season.

Pittsburgh would like one final look at Harris in a system run by someone other than Canada before making a firm decision on Harris' future. Thanks to the presence of Warren, the Steelers know they won't be left empty-handed if they decide to move on from Harris in 2025. And if he blossoms under Smith's direction, they'll have to head to the negotiating table to see if they can work out a deal while armed with confidence gained from a productive 2024 campaign.

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