Chase Claypool is the new Steelers’ rookie leader.
Maybe not for long.
Finishing last year with 62 receptions, Claypool broke Troy Edwards’ 20-year franchise mark for grabs by a rookie. But could his record go as quickly as it came?
There’s a case to be made Najee Harris has an outside, but still legitimate, shot at breaking that mark. Bouncing off Matthew Marczi’s question he posed yesterday, there’s a couple of reasons.
One, Harris was, to me, the best receiving back in the draft. There were other talented ones: Travis Etienne, Kenneth Gainwell, Kylin Hill. But no one had Harris’ combination of size, hands, and body control. He was an accomplished receiver at Alabama, managing to catch 80 passes his final two years, including 43 in 2020. That came in just 13 games in an offense full of first-round talent – Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle were top 15 players. Project out what Harris did last year over a 17-game season and you land on 56 receptions. Just a couple shy of Claypool’s mark.
As has been made crystal clear a thousand times already and a thousand more before the season starts, Harris will be the Steelers’ bell cow. There’s every reason to believe the team will give him as many snaps as he can handle end-to-end, Week 1 against Buffalo to the finale versus Baltimore. Pittsburgh won’t ease him in, he won’t be part of a rotation, he won’t leap up the depth chart after the bye week. He’s the guy. Lack of opportunity won’t be an issue.
The last time Pittsburgh drafted a running back for that type of role was Le’Veon Bell, the team’s second round pick in 2013. He played in just 13 games as a rookie, missing the first three due to injury, and yet still finished the season with 45 receptions on 66 targets. Extrapolate the receptions out over 17 games and you’re nearly at 59. 58.8, if you want to get technical.
Bell upped the receiving ante over the rest of his career. The next year, he broke the franchise record for receptions by a running back with 83 and then re-broke it in 2017 with 85 (he would’ve done it in 2016 too had his season not been hampered by suspension). Over the course of his Steelers’ career, Bell averaged 5.03 receptions per game. Over a 17-game slate, it averages out to 85.5 receptions, absolutely smashing the Steelers’ rookie record.
There’s a case to be made Harris will catch more passes as a rookie, even on a per-game basis, than Bell. I would argue Harris the better receiver coming out. It’s close, but Harris had better numbers out of the backfield. Bell never had more than 35 catches in a season and had just one career receiving touchdown. Harris had 11. Bell’s rookie year was hampered by that injury, so he wasn’t able to get involved in the gameplan right away. And he wasn’t in as good of shape as Harris is right now. It wasn’t until the start of Bell’s sophomore year that he dropped down to about where Harris is now and really became a fluid, space player.
Factor in the current state of the Steelers’ offense, too. They’re throwing more than ever. Yes, the goal is to get Roethlisberger’s attempts down somewhat so he isn’t chucking it 50+ times. A stronger run game overall should accomplish that. But he’s still likely to throw 600+ pass attempts in a 17-game season. In 2013, he threw 584 times. Given how quickly Roethlisberger now gets the ball out of his hands, the fastest in football, that leaves a lot of chances to hit the running back in the flat or on a quick-hitting angle/option route.
There’s no question a lot has to go right for Harris to hit 63 receptions. Starting with the obvious: he needs to stay healthy. Miss a couple games and it’s going to be tough to stay on pace. And it’ll probably require one or two games Bell had in his prime where Harris is catching 8+ passes in a game. Doable, but difficult. Probably a game where the Steelers are playing catch-up and chucking it 60 times. Week 16 at Kansas City feels like a good bet.
Still, all Harris needs is to average 3.8 receptions per game and he’ll own the record. If he misses one game, he’ll still need to only average four. Don’t discount his chances of doing it. If the Steelers get him involved as we expect them to, they’ll give him the ball every chance they can.