The Steelers are expected to exercise running back Najee Harris‘ fifth-year option prior to the May 2 deadline, per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic (subscription required). That maneuver would give Harris a fully-guaranteed salary of $6.66MM for the 2025 season (he is due to earn $2.44MM in 2024 on the fourth and final year of his rookie contract).
The running back market has notoriously grown stagnant in recent years, and Harris was one of the high-profile RBs to publicly voice his frustration with that trend. In June, Pittsburgh GM Omar Khan suggested that surging prices for quarterbacks naturally create the need to cut costs on other areas of the roster, and like his fellow top execs, Khan might not have an appetite for authorizing a lucrative second contract for a running back in light of the position’s high attrition rate, especially for workhorse backs like Harris.
Of course, the Steelers are in quarterback limbo at the moment, as 2022 first-rounder Kenny Pickett has struggled through his first two professional seasons, and Mitchell Trubisky is the only other quarterback under club control for 2024. But regardless of whether the Steelers add a notable QB contract to their books this offseason, the relatively small fifth-year salary for Harris in 2025 should be easy enough to absorb. Whether extension talks take place between now and the end of the 2025 campaign, however, is an entirely different story.
Mason Rudolph, who just finished a one-year veteran minimum deal, was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 16 after Trubisky struggled in relief of an injured Pickett. That switch coincided with a heavier reliance on the running game, as Harris tallied 72 carries over the final three contests of the regular season and racked up 312 yards (4.33 YPC) and four TDs in the process. Efficiency had been a problem for Harris, but that productive stretch helped him finish the year with a YPC over 4.0 for the first time in his career and underscored his potential upside. Whomever the Steelers hire as their next OC should have a productive RB tandem in Harris and Jaylen Warren, who was a UDFA in 2022 and who is therefore entering a platform campaign.
Another decision that Khan will have to make this offseason is not as clear as the call to pick up Harris’ option. We recently heard that stalwart DT Cam Heyward may be contemplating retirement following a 2023 season marred by a serious groin injury, and while Kaboly says Heyward would like to return for at least one more season (subscription required), the decision is not his alone. The Steelers can cut the six-time Pro Bowler and save roughly $10MM against the 2024 salary cap after accounting for dead money, but as Kaboly notes, ownership would probably rather eat Heyward’s salary than release him given what he has meant to the franchise.
In other words, if Heyward is able to continue playing, the team will welcome him back. Although Kaboly does not say so, it is presumably still possible that player and team work out a short-term extension to smooth out Heyward’s $22MM cap hit in 2024.