Steelers' recent decision shows Jaguars drafted the right RB in 2021

• The Jaguars exercised the 5th year option on Travis Etienne while Steelers chose not to pick up Najee Harris'.
2021 NFL Draft
2021 NFL Draft / Gregory Shamus/GettyImages

The Jacksonville Jaguars wasted no time picking up the fifth-year option on Travis Etienne's rookie deal. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers declined Najee Harris'. Both running backs were selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. It looks like the Jags got the better of the two.

While Harris has crossed the 1,000-yard mark in each of his three seasons in Steel City, he's got a career average of 3.9 yards per carry. It's true that Travis Etienne averaged a measly 3.8 in 2023 but that was mostly the result of running behind a porous offensive line.

The year prior, the former Clemson Tiger averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry. It's fair to assume that he'll be equally productive next season based on the moves the Jags made in the offseason to bolster the offensive trenches.

Now, not getting his option picked up isn't the end of the world for Harris. Other players have had their options declined but still managed to get an extension from the club that drafted them. If Harris has a breakout season, he'll be in a position to get a more lucrative deal in 2025. Then again, it wouldn't have cost the Steelers much to pick up Harris' option, which would've been a reasonable $6.7 million. The decision is possibly a sign they don't see him as a part of their future.

Salaries for running backs have stalled in recent years. Right now, Christian McCaffrey has the biggest annual average in the league at $16.01 million. However, only five running backs will earn more than $10 million in 2024. Etienne's average of $3.2 million in 2024 doesn't even crack the top 20, and his salary of $6.7 million next year would put him at No. 12, so it's fair to say that the Jaguars are getting plenty of bang for their buck.

On a related note, the Jaguars also picked up Trevor Lawrence's fifth-year option but declined Mac Jones'. All players drafted in the first round are eligible for the option after three accrued seasons. Jacksonville drafted Lawrence and Etienne in 2021 and acquired Jones via trade before the start of free agency.

The Jaguars have a playmaker in Travis Etienne

When the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne, Najee Harris was off the board, so you could argue that Pittsburgh made the choice for them. But even if that's the case, they ended with the better running back of the two.

The fact that the Jaguars haven't made any important acquisitions at the running backs the past two years shows their confidence in Etienne hasn't wavered. Sure, the front office did use a third-round pick on Bigsby last year but that was done with the intention of taking some of the workload off Etienne's shoulders

Bigsby ended up struggling in 2023 but even if he improves next season, and there's a chance he will, Etienne will remain the top option in the backfield.

The bottom line is that the Jaguars recognize they have a playmaker in Travis Etienne. Their efforts to put him in a position to succeed, along with the decision to pick up his fifth-year option, are proof of that.

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