When the Pittsburgh Steelers and General Manager Kevin Colbert made Alabama running back Najee Harris the 79th first-round draft pick in franchise history in April, the hype train started rolling down the tracks at a high rate of speed almost instantaneously.
Now, just days away from the start of his first training camp as an NFL running back, the hype for Harris has reached what Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook is calling an “almost-unprecedented” level for the Steelers’ rookie.
“Has there ever been a Pittsburgh athlete who broke in here with more hype and facing greater expectations than Harris? Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby? Absolutely. Barry Bonds? I’ll give you him,” Cook writes. “But among Steelers rookies? I can’t think of one. Not even the great Woodson or the incomparable Polamalu. It’s not just Harris’ wondrous athletic ability that puts him so much in the spotlight. His fame also is a product of his media exposure, both traditional media and social media.”
Cook has a point here, especially in the last 10 years or so. Harris is the biggest name-brand rookie to join the Steelers in the Twitter era at the very least, considering his accomplishments on the field at Alabama over four seasons.
Seriously, look back at the last decade or so of Steelers’ first-round draft picks. Let’s start with Cameron Heyward in 2011; there wasn’t much true hype around him, considering he was joining a loaded defensive end group and was expected to sit for a year. While he was the son of former Pitt great Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, the hype wasn’t really there overall.
David DeCastro in 2012 was hyped up due to him falling and filling a true need for the Steelers at guard, but he wasn’t hyped up like Harris, not even close. Same for names like Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree, though Shazier was the biggest name due to his Ohio State ties and the inside linebacker position seemingly being answered for the first time in a long time in Pittsburgh.
Artie Burns and Terrell Edmunds certainly didn’t move the needle, though T.J. Watt certainly did, simply due to his last name and all the pressure and recognition that name brought to the table.
As for a guy like Devin Bush, the hype was there, simply based off the Steelers trading into the top 10 to grab the athletic linebacker in hopes of replacing Shazier, who was injured and retired from the game with a spinal injury.
The hype for Harris though, it feels like it’s truly unmatched at this point. He’s a household name not only in Pittsburgh, but nationally thanks to his exploits at Alabama and the work he’s done off the field in his home state of California.
Add in the talent, the need and the history of running backs in Pittsburgh, and what you’re seeing in terms of hype with Harris is a true level that hasn’t been reached by any first-round pick in the last decade, at the very least.
Now, we’ll see if he can live up to the mountain of expectations placed on him at this point.