Over the last decade, 2010-2020, quarterbacks won Offensive Rookie of the Year six times. They grab the biggest headlines, they put up the numbers, and they’re the ones who receive the most attention. The 2021 draft class was full of first-round quarterbacks. But if any non-passer is going to beat them out, it’s going to be Najee Harris.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein’s list of top candidates for Rookie of the Year reflect that. Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence sits #1 on his list, but Harris is right behind him at #2. Here’s what Zierlein wrote about Harris’ rookie season projections and he acknowledge how QB-heavy these awards have become.
“This award has become quarterback-centric in today’s pass-oriented game, but running backs should not be counted out. An RB has been named OROY in four of the past eight years, and Harris is certainly a worthy contender. Pittsburgh understands that Ben Roethlisberger may no longer be capable of carrying an offense with his right arm. Harris gives the Steelers a bruising three-down back with qualities similar to former Steelers star Le’Veon Bell. Harris is a tenacious runner with good vision and the agility to make tacklers miss when needed. He should stack up rushing yardage, but his ability as a pass catcher and touchdown maker could be the difference if he is to win the award.”
Harris is fully expected to be the Steelers’ bell cow and should smash team rookie rushing records, assuming he stays healthy. Here’s the milestones he’s looking to edge out.
Steelers’ Rookie Rushing Records
Attempts: Le’Veon Bell — 244 (2013)
Yards: Franco Harris — 1,055 (1972)
Touchdowns: Franco Harris — 10 (1972)
YPC (min 100 attempts): Franco Harris — 5.6 (1972)
Harris almost certainly won’t break Harris’ mark for yards per carry, but he can become the leader in every other category, especially in the NFL’s new 17-game season. To do that, he’ll have to average 14.4 carries per game, 62.1 yards per game, and 0.65 touchdowns per game. The Steelers certainly won’t limit his opportunities. They need the run game to get better. Harris was drafted in the first round to be *the* guy from Week 1 on.
Zierlein also makes a solid comparison to Bell. Both were big backs, Harris listed at 6’2″, 230 pounds, with impressive lateral quickness despite not having tremendous long speed. Harris and Bell were/are great options out of the backfield and both even have similar hurdling ability.
The last running back to win the award was Saquon Barkley in 2018. But that class was light on rookie QB production. Four QBs started at least 11 games but only one, Baker Mayfield, had a reasonably successful season. Same story in 2017 when Alvin Kamara won it. That year, only two rookie QBs started more than half the season: DeShone Kizer and Mitchell Trubisky. So…yeah, Kamara was the no-brainer choice.
What that means is Harris will obviously need to have a strong rookie season. But to win the award, he’ll likely need to get some help from other rookie quarterbacks either not playing or not playing well. If both things happen, he’ll become the first Steeler to win OROY since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, and just the fourth in team history. Harris won the award in 1972 while WR Louis Lipps took home the hardware in 1984.