There are two conversations, which often happen simultaneously, when a team drafts a running back in the first round. On one side of the aisle is the discussion other whether or not it was justified. We have certainly had that here. The other, and more relevant, discussion is how he is used and whether or not he will be effective.
Pro Football Focus was not a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers drafting running back Najee Harris in the first round, labeling it one of the biggest reaches of the round, purely based on the position. But they also listed him as one of 10 offensive rookies primed to have an immediate impact in 2021:
There’s only one reason why a team would draft a running back in the first round: for them to be the offense’s workhorse.
Whether or not you agree with the pick, Najee Harris is primed to see upwards of 250-300 touches this season and will be a featured part of the Pittsburgh offense from Day 1. Kevin Cole’s fantasy projections have Harris racking up over 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns in his rookie season.
Harris posted above an 88.0 PFF grade in three straight seasons for the Crimson Tide. After deciding to return for one more season, he enjoyed his best year yet, finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and breaking Derrick Henry’s single-season touchdown record set when he won the Heisman in 2015.
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Harris has what it takes to endure the typical bruising punishment of an NFL workhorse running back. He also possesses a unique catch radius for the position and should feature in the Steelers’ passing game from the jump.
Assuming good health, it should be a very safe assumption that Harris hits that threshold of touches, without even factoring in the expansion of the regular season to 17 games. During his five seasons in Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell averaged over 300 touches per season — and nearly 400 touches per 16 games.
James Conner’s availability has been a much greater issue, but he even averaged 277 touches per 16 games over the course of the past three seasons. Provided that Harris proves to be durable, 300 touches even may be a conservative estimate.
That is in part because I think the Steelers are excited about making use of him in the passing game, as well. He will probably get 50 touches in the passing game alone this season. Conner had 55 receptions during his Pro Bowl year. DeAngelo Williams had 40 receptions in 10 starts in 2015, so it’s certainly a reasonable target.
Pittsburgh drafted this man because they believe he is a do-everything player who won’t have to come off the field very much. That doesn’t mean that they won’t spell him or try to conserve him to a certain degree, but there’s no doubt that he is their bell cow — at least for the next five years, if not longer.