What kind of workload can we expect Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris to have in 2021, and how successful does that workload need to be? Those are questions that I think several might be attempting to answer the next several months and a few I will attempt to address in this post.
For starters, I don’t think it’s out of the question to expect Harris to log at least 250 carries during his 2021 rookie season, especially with there now being 17 regular season games. That’s just a 14.7 carry per game average. Unless something happens to him injury-wise, he certainly better hit those numbers, being a first-round draft pick.
On top of the expectations that Harris should log at least 250 carries during his rookie season, it’s hard to imagine the Alabama product not registering at least 300 touches in 2021, as well. After all, Harris was particularly good at catching the football out of the backfield in college. As a first-round running back, he better be able to contribute to the Steelers passing game right out of the chute.
With those minimum total carry and touch amounts now established for Harris, I thought it would be worth a look back to see how many rookie running backs have managed to log at least 250 total carries in the first NFL season, and what level success each had if that mark were hit. Surprisingly, only 19 total running backs from 2000-2020 have managed to log at 250 carries during a rookie season. That’s slightly less than one per season on average. Additionally, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley is the last one to accomplish that feat. That was back in 2018 when he had 261 total carries. Barkley did touch the football 352 total times as a rookie, however, on his way to registering 2,028 total yards from scrimmage.
So, with Barkley hitting 2,000 total yards from scrimmage as a rookie, one would think that overall, he had a successful season, right? In theory he did from a yardage standpoint, but from an advanced metrics one, not really. While Barkley did register a DYAR stat of 127 in 2018, which was 14th-best in the NFL of all running backs that season, his successful run rate was a woeful 41%, the lowest of the 19 running backs that met the 250-carry threshold as rookies dating back to 2000.
Barkley had a robust 5.01 yards per average in 2018, but that was mainly because he registered 16 carries that went for 20 or more yards, with six of those being good for at least 50 yards. Those 20 explosive runs of his accounted for 49% of his total rushing yardage on the season. What a lot of people likely forget is that Barkley had 61 carries that went for zero or negative yards as a rookie. That’s 23.1% of all his total carries that season.
One last note on Barkley, and it’s the fact that he was indeed a feast or famine running back as a rookie in 2018, as evidenced by him registering 5.76 yards per touch. The Giants, by the way, were 5-8 in games that Barkley registered 100 or more total yards from scrimmage in 2018, his rookie season.
At minimum, a 48% successful run rate should be expected. If you want to lower the bar to that level, you can add Mike Anderson (2000) to the list of Portis, Elliott, Morris, and Lewis. Doug Martin almost makes that list as well, but his 155 DYAR fell just short of the 180 bar. As mentioned, there have been just 19 running backs that have hit the 250-carry mark as rookies dating back to 2000. Quite honestly, just four of them had successful seasons from an advanced metrics standpoint, which includes a successful run rate of 50% or greater and a DYAR stat of 180 or greater. Those four running backs were Clinton Portis (2002), Ezekiel Elliott (2016), Alfred Morris (2012) and Jamal Lewis (2000).
So, now that you have had a chance to see the same data set below that I used to write this post around, it should be easy to see what the Steelers should expect to get out of Harris in 2021. First, Harris should log at least 250 carries in 2021, and his run success rate needs to 50% or better. I would think at least 1,600 total yards from scrimmage should also be expected as well. If Harris hits those numbers, his DYAR should come in greater than 180, as well.
To close this post out, I will let you know that the data shows that there has been just one rookie running back since 2000 that has made the playoffs with a DYAR under 154 on 250 or more carries. That was Leonard Fournette (115) in 2017.
Rookie Running Backs With At Least 250 Carries (2000-2020)