Will Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris be the best rookie at his position in 2021? With him being the first running back selected in the 2021 NFL Draft and a first round pick, one certainly would hope that the Alabama product will ultimately and easily be the top rookie at his position come the end of his first NFL season. On Monday, NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund explained why she expects Harris to be the top rookie running back in 2021.
Here is her detailed reasoning:
According to Next Gen Stats, Steelers running backs ranked 31st in expected yards per rush last season (3.9). That’s not an indictment on the RBs themselves, but rather the circumstances they faced. As of right now, the Steelers’ offensive line forecasts to grade out in the 20s by the time everyone establishes their 53-man rosters, meaning Harris faces a tough task. The good news is that his volume forecasts to be high, as does his ability to keep earning positive yardage. Pro Football Focus credited Harris with earning 821 rushing yards after contact in 2020, which was the second-most in FBS (trailing only Iowa State’s Breece Hall). Harris also forced 93 missed tackles on touches last season, the most in FBS, with 71 coming off rushes and 22 on receptions. My computer vision shows that his off-ball metric on short passing downs (meaning how he blocked and/or ran a route when not targeted) was the most efficient amongst all backs in the Power Five conferences last season.
If things go as planned for the Steelers and Harris, the rookie running back will touch the ball around 300 total times in 2021. Assuming Harris registers and average of five yards per touch, which isn’t a stretch by any means, that would put him at around 1,500 total yards from scrimmage in 2021.
Not only should Harris be able to total around 1,500 or more yards from scrimmage in 2021, but his successful play rate should also be expected to be at least 50 percent on the low side. The Steelers’ running backs haven’t had great combined success rates the last several years. That’s played a big part in the running game ranking at or near the bottom of the entire NFL in several statistical categories the last few seasons.
Last season, the Steelers had the fewest amount of runs of 10 yards or longer in the NFL. On top of that, the team has just 110 runs of 10 yards or longer for the last three seasons. Only the Miami Dolphins (108) and New York Jets (106) had fewer than they did. It’s worth noting that while at Alabama, Harris had a total of 135 runs that gained at least 10 yards. That was 21.2% of his total college career carries.