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Despite being "really solid" (to use Mike Tomlin's words) during his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, Najee Harris is set to be a free agent after the 2024 season after the Steelers declined to pick up his fifth-year option

Pittsburgh hasn't ruled out trying to sign Harris after the 2024 season, but it wants to first see how he does in new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's offense, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Harris, a Pro Bowler in 2022 and the first player in franchise history to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, would have made $6.97 million if the Steelers picked up his option by the May 2 deadline. Instead, Harris will play out the final year of his four-year, $13 million contract before likely entering free agency for the first time. 

Harris joins the list of recent Steelers first-round picks who did not have their fifth-year options picked up, a list that also includes cornerback Artie Burns, safety Terrell Edmunds and linebacker Devin Bush. While Edmunds ended up playing a fifth year in Pittsburgh, Burns and Bush left town after their rookie deals expired. The same will likely happen with Harris, whose run with the franchise appears to be on borrowed time. 

While their decision to not pick up Harris' option is understandable, below are three reasons why I believe that Pittsburgh made a mistake. 

1. Harris' steady success 

Let's start with the easy reason. Harris has been a productive NFL running back despite some obvious barriers he has been asked to hurdle during his time in Pittsburgh. 

As a rookie, Harris played behind a patchwork offensive line that included two rookie starters. It didn't help matters that Harris was playing with an aging Ben Roethlisberger, who provided no threat as a runner. Despite these challenges, Harris played at a Pro Bowl level, broke Franco Harris' franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie and helped the Steelers grab a playoff spot. 

Harris had even less help in 2022, as Roethlisberger's departure (and the Steelers' overall handling of the quarterback position) led to a complete drop-off on the offensive side of the ball. Harris still managed to play his best ball down the stretch and was a key reason why the Steelers kept their streak of non-losing seasons alive. 

Last year, despite more quarterback issues and the Steelers firing their offensive coordinator during the season, Harris once again had over 1,000 rushing yards and set career highs for touchdown runs (eight) and yards-per-carry average (4.1). Once again, he played his best at the end of the season while helping the Steelers reach the playoffs for the second time in three years. 

In his first three seasons, Harris amassed over 4,000 all-purpose yards and scored 28 touchdowns. As good as those numbers are, Harris' most amazing stat is that he hasn't missed a game (or start), an incredible showing of durability and a testament to his rigorous training regimen

Really, the only thing Harris is missing is that big statistical season, which could happen now with all the additions the Steelers have made on offense along with the hiring of Smith. 

2. Best 1-2 RB duo in NFL?

Every Steelers fan knows about Jaylen Warren and his rise from undrafted rookie to part-time starter. Yes, Warren has proven his worth and deserves to at least share the starting backfield duties moving forward. But he should continue to share that workload with Harris while continuing what may already be the NFL's best running back duo. 

Pittsburgh has made no secrets about its desire to return to its roots as a smash-mouth, no-nonsense team that breaks a defense's will as the game goes on. They want to get back to being a dominant running team, and they will probably achieve that in 2024 given the fact that the offensive line should be even better with the additions of rookies Troy Fautanu, Zach Frazier and Mason McCormick. 

Picking up Harris' fifth-year option would have ensured that the Steelers would keep their RB duo together for at least the next two years while eliminating the distractions that will inevitably be there now with Harris' expiring contract. Instead of the fan/media focus being on what they're doing together, it will instead be on the workload distribution between Warren and Harris and what that could mean about Harris' future beyond this season. 

3. Harris' intangible value 

Harris is somewhat seen in Pittsburgh's media as an enigma. He doesn't always talk to the media, but when he does, Harris usually has something noteworthy to say. 

Take what Harris said last year in Cleveland for example. He was fed up with the Steelers' offense underperforming, and instead of declining interview requests (as several of his teammates did) or giving a non-answer, Harris was open, honest and even vulnerable with the media. 

Harris' comments were obviously heard by the Steelers' brass, who quickly took action by relieving offensive coordinator Matt Canada of his duties. 

Maybe the Steelers took issue with Harris airing his grievances publicly. They shouldn't be. In a time when teams hide the inner workings of their operation more than ever, Harris gave the fans the truth, at least from his vantage point. He was raw and authentic, something that should be celebrated and not discouraged. 

Harris isn't perfect (who is?), but he is a throwback player in the sense that he cares first and foremost about winning, individual numbers be damned. He's a tireless worker who challenges his teammates to match his level of dedication. 

Instead of rewarding his prior work, the Steelers have in a sense made Harris a lame duck. Sure, the Steelers could always discuss a possible extension for Harris, but the writing appears to be on the wall.

Harris is likely playing his final season in Pittsburgh. It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out and whether Harris will follow in the footsteps of James Conner as a running back who flourishes after leaving the Steelers.