Steelers Rumors: T.J. Watt injury, WR returning, Jaylen Warren coup

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  • Jaylen Warren deserves more touches
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T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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Steelers Rumors: Insider petitions for Jaylen Warren to split touches with Najee Harris

A position battle is brewing in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have been relatively content with Najee Harris as the undisputed RB1 since his explosive NFL debut in 2021. The first-round pick out of Alabama dominated his first season (381 touches, 1,667 yards from scrimmage, 10 touchdowns) and appeared well on his way to untouchable status.

Unfortunately, the perception of running backs has changed drastically, even over the last two years. And, to complicate matters further, Harris' productivity has been on a sharp decline. He has been an absolute ironman, starting in every possible game of his NFL career, but he doesn't pack the same punch he did a couple of years ago. The Steelers' usage of him reflects that.

Second-year RB Jaylen Warren has been a steady change-of-pace option behind Harris this season. He has rushed 34 times for 124 yards across five games. Harris has 63 rushes for 247 yards. The passing game has been a differentiator, however, as Warren has 21 receptions compared to Harris' five receptions.

Neither back has sniffed the end zone, but that's a byproduct of the offense as a whole more than it is an indictment on their respective abilities. Right now, the picture is easily painted: Harris gets more early-down and goal-line work, while Warren dominates later downs and offers more dynamism as a route-runner.

Ask Steelers columnist Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, however, and it's time to demote Harris in favor of the "more explosive" Warren.

Cook poses a rather sharp question: "Is it a reach to suggest the only reason Najee Harris plays more than Jaylen Warren is because Harris was a No. 1 draft choice and Warren was an undrafted free agent?"

No, it's not a reach. That's the way of the NFL a lot of the time, especially at the RB position. Time and time again, we see veteran RBs take precedence over younger options despite middling production.

In the case of Harris and Warren, it's probably more nuanced than Cook suggests. Warren may be "more explosive," but the numbers don't really back it up. Harris averages 3.9 yards per carry, Warren only averages 3.6 — neither is great, but Harris still has the edge despite a heftier workload. Warren gets more touches through the air (and therefore a comparable volume of touches overall), but there's nothing statistically to suggest he should get more burn in the run game. He's the change of pace, and that's fine.

Harris has not been very impressive this season (or even for long stretches of last season). He often feels like a product of volume more than anything else. Still, it's a little premature to say Warren should, beyond all doubt, take an equal split in the backfield.