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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Joe Starkey

Joe Starkey: Will Najee Harris win the race to a second contract?

PITTSBURGH — Najee Harris apparently showed up for OTAs as "Ninja" Harris, focused and toned, with thighs the size of the national deficit.

"He was an action figure already," tight end Zach Gentry told Steelers Nation Radio. "Think about how explosive he was last year and, I mean, he looks even more explosive this year."

A lot of running backs — including Le'Veon Bell and James Conner — slim down upon reaching the NFL. Not Najee. He weighed 232 pounds at his Alabama pro day. He says he played at 240 last year and is up to 244 — I'm guessing with a body fat percentage of 0.0, from the looks of it.

If this is Harris's way of girding for what again could be a monstrous workload, good for him.

He's in a race against the clock, you know, just like every running back who enters the league.

It's really running backs vs. the collective bargaining agreement, and the CBA is winning big. Lots of people profit off these guys from high school into the pros, but it's not until well into their pro careers — if they are lucky enough to make it that far unscathed — that backs can cash in for themselves (although NIL will help change that in college).

The system is rigged against this position more than any other.

Like all players, running backs are forced by rule to wait three years after high school before they can turn pro. Unlike others, elite running backs clearly are ready for the NFL far earlier. Think of the beast that was James Conner during his sophomore year at Pitt, when he was named ACC Player of the Year.

Once they reach the NFL, first-round running backs, like others, are forced to wait four or maybe five years before they can sign their first huge contract. Unlike other players, that's often too late at their position.

Consider these facts from a Washington Post piece titled, "NFL running backs don't just need better contracts. They need a better CBA":

"Since 2002, running backs have peaked between the ages of 23 and 26. This is true whether we look at yards, touchdowns, yards from scrimmage or total touchdowns. Three-fourths of running backs will peak sometime within that window, and nearly half will do it at 23 or 24. In other words, a running back selected in the draft will most likely peak while under the initial four- or five-year contract, leaving little incentive to commit premium salary cap space to a declining player."

Running backs have become devalued to the point where only punters, long snappers, special teams players and fullbacks make less on average, according to And that mostly includes guys on light or normal workloads, not the Harris Plan. Najee led the NFL with 381 touches last season and accrued 170 more snaps than any other player at his position. Put that on top of his 718 touches over parts of four seasons at Alabama, and you begin to wonder about attrition.

He didn't make it out of last year unscathed, by the way. He sustained an elbow injury in the season finale at Baltimore and appeared to be severely impaired for the playoff game at Kansas City.

And yet, even as Harris rises to maybe a top-five back, absorbing massive amounts of punishment, he will be locked into a relatively puny slotted deal for perhaps the next three or four years. Not that I would blame Mike Tomlin or any coach for "running the wheels off," as they say.

I'm not feeling sorry for Harris. He did sign a fully guaranteed four-year, $13.1 million contract after the Steelers drafted him 24th overall. But if you're wondering why there was talk of running backs forming their own union a few years ago, wonder no more.

Harris is the NFL's 21st-highest paid back in terms of average compensation ($3.26 million), right below Gus Edwards. He will make less than half as much as Conner this season.

Back to the Post piece: "The NFL has made it virtually impossible for running backs to make financial gains under the current CBA. Instead, the best they can aim for is to outperform expectations on their entry-level contract and hope a team goes against conventional wisdom and offers a lucrative multi-year contract, which history has shown probably will lead to their release before it expires. If running backs want more respect in the pay department, they'll need to change the CBA."

Harris could ask some older NFL players — or retired ones — about how the union and the league conspired against rookies back in 2011.

Andrew Brandt, a former NFL executive, wrote about that: "The CBA took a sledgehammer to the old rookie compensation model. Owners thought top rookies made too much, and so did veteran player leadership at the union. Slashing the pay of incoming players, who had no voice in the CBA negotiations, was an easy item on the collective bargaining checklist."

Harris could be 26 by the time he's in position to make a fair wage for what he does.

Here's hoping he gets there in one piece.

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