Recently, Steelers Depot’s very own Dave Bryan wrote a piece on the site highlighting rookie RB Najee Harris’s projected odds to win the NFL rushing title in 2021. According to SportsBetting.ag as of Friday morning, Harris was listed at 12/1 odds to win the rushing title. Currently, that puts Harris in the same category as Cam Akers of the Rams and Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys, having only the likes of Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Christian McCaffery, Jonathan Taylor, and Saquon Barkley ahead of him to win the award.
Dave does mention that while some may expect it to be difficult for rookies to win the award their first season in the league, it has been done before and even in recent history with Kareem Hunt accomplishing the feat in 2017 with the Kansas City Chiefs and Elliot doing it the year prior in his first season in Dallas. Unlike most positions that need to take time to acclimate to the speed of the game at the next level, running backs often are able to hit the ground running, as ironic as it sounds, and manufacture production right away.
However, after seeing that Najee Harris’ 2021 rushing yards total is currently set at an O/U of 990.5 per DKSportsbook, I frankly came away a little shocked. While nearly 990 rushing yards is nothing to scoff at in today’s NFL where more and more teams are using a committee-based approach in their backfields, the thought of Harris not eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards, let alone over 1,200 yards came off as a disaster-like season for what is supposed to be a high-impact first-round RB. I’m not certain whether this number was meant to factor in games potentially lost due to injury, but either way, tallying 990 yards in a 17-game season would come out to roughly 58 yards per game on the ground, something that should be easily attainable given the expected workload Harris is supposed to receive, right?
Now I have been tooting the horn of how Harris should be in-line for an impact 2021 campaign since the guy was drafted. However, I wanted to look at potential scenarios and play a little devil’s advocate to come up with reasons why he may not achieve these lofty expectations pretty much the entire national media and Steelers Nation has put on top of him.
First, the nature of the position of running back is that these guys do often get injured more frequently than other positions based on the amount of contact that sustain on a play-to-play basis. Whether it be carrying the ball up the middle of the LOS, catching the ball in the flat and attempting to make a defender miss, or stepping up into the gap to put your face in the fan in pass protection on a blitzer coming free, the running back position exposes itself to a lot of contact, thus leading itself to potential injury.
Look at Le’Veon Bell’s rookie season back in 2013 where he played only 13 games as he dealt with an injury in training camp. He managed to play a full 16 games in 2014, but the missed ten games in 2015 and four games in 2016 due to other injuries he sustained receiving a heavy workload.
We are all projecting Harris to garner a heavy workload himself in 2021, and while he has been healthy during his time at Alabama, a full 17-game slate with preseason and playoffs thrown in can challenge even the most highly durable, conditioned athletes.
A second point to consider is the state of Pittsburgh’s offensive line. I know I posted an article earlier this offseason highlighting rookie running back performance in comparison to their offensive line units blocking for them upfront, and while there have been several successful seasons by rookie rushers with porous or unproven lines up front, play style also has to factor in as well.
As strong, powerful, and elusive Harris is as a runner, his biggest knock coming out of Alabama was that elite open-field speed to blow past defenders when he hits daylight. Sure, he has good initial burst up the hole, but the home run threat is what lead to the likes of Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, and many other rookie backs having the stellar first-year campaigns they had. If Harris gets the volume but doesn’t have the successful run rate or yards-per-carry to consistently turn out positive plays on the ground due to the lack of experience and continuity upfront with this nearly brand-new group, he could struggle to be efficient and thus hamper his overall production.
For example, Bell had 244 carries in 13 games in 2013, but managed only 860 rushing yards for a 3.5 YPC average on the season. He got nearly 19 carries per game alone in those contests, but only managed 66 yards per game due to the adjust he personally had to go through as well as the fact they had lost Maurkice Pouncey to injury early in the season and were playing David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum who were solid players, but were still new to the league, causing that adjustment period for the unit to gel together as a hole.
To put that into perspective, should Harris receive 275 carries (a little over 16 per game in a 17-game season), but only average 3.5 YPC, he would finish with right around 963 yards rushing on the year. This could be seen as a “worst-case” scenario but seeing as Bell struggled initially in his rookie season with an offensive line still trying to find its identity, Harris could potentially find himself in a similar situation.
Now it has become common knowledge to most Steelers fans and fantasy football gamers alike that Mike Tomlin loves to utilize a workhorse back in his offense. We have seen moments with Bell, DeAngelo Williams, James Conner, and even Rashard Mendenhall receive heavy workloads for a majority of seasons in lead back roles for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Seeing as Pittsburgh elected to select Harris with the 24th overall selection in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, you would think that he would get fed the ball early and often based on that investment. However, the Steelers do have a plethora of receiving weapons on the outside and at the TE position, potentially limiting the overall upside of a heavy workload in the passing game with guys likes Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Eric Ebron, and Pat Freiermuth all likely getting involved in some form or fashion.
Also, with the addition of another game to the schedule and the implementation of a new offensive system by Matt Canada, we may still see the other running backs in the roster worked in more to the game plan than we initially expect.
Anthony McFarland Jr. has experience playing in Canada’s system at Maryland and had a lot of success being a threat to rip off chunk plays on the ground when he gets in space, making it realistic Canada may have some schemed packages prepared for McFarland’s skill set as more of a long speed runner. Benny Snell Jr. and possibly Kalen Ballage could also factor in more early on during the season to spell Najee Harris to make sure he is fresh for the end of the season to make a run at the playoffs rather than possibly putting more on the rookie’s plate than he may be able to potentially handle during a long 17-gmae regular season.
This isn’t to say these guys will substantially eat into Harris’ overall workload, but should he not top over 300 carries (roughly 17.5 per game), this could limit his upside for a breakout rookie campaign.
Is this article meant to say that Najee Harris won’t drastically improve the running game in 2021? Absolutely not. He is a great talent that adds an element to the backfield that Pittsburgh hasn’t had since Le’Veon Bell decided to hold out the entire year. However, there are several things working against the rookie’s favor going into 2021 that he will have to overcome in order to meet the lofty expectations the fan base, the national media, the franchise, and likely he himself has for him in Year One.
I personally think he is capable of doing it, but again, a lot has to go right health-wise and along the offensive front for Harris to truly realize that ceiling.
What are your expectations for Najee Harris’s rookie season in 2021? What would you personally consider a bad season to be for Harris in terms of stats, playing time, etc? Do you think the expectations are reasonable given the circumstances of the offense around Harris? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!