It’s never not the case that a team’s first-round draft pick is a major point of focus during his rookie offseason, and that’s certainly no different for the Pittsburgh Steelers and running back Najee Harris—perhaps especially following a year in which they did not have a first-round pick for the first time in half a century.
Harris is actually the first first-round pick they’ve invested in an offensive player since David DeCastro in 2012, who is no longer here now, and potentially retiring. And he is already being set up as the new face of the offense. His teammates are not shying away from putting him in the spotlight, either, including the guys who have to try to tackle him…or work through his blocks.
“He’s a baller”, second-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, moving into the starting lineup this season, said of the rookie back a short time ago during an interview with Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller on SiriusXM Radio, following today’s practice.
“He’s been breaking a lot of tackles and making runs for himself. He’s gonna be a baller for sure”, he continued. “Definitely will be in that Offensive Rookie of the Year [conversation]. That’s my prediction for him. I’m excited for him. He’s 240. He’s a big back, he can run, he can catch, he can block, too, in passing sets and stuff like that. He’s gonna take the league by storm, and I’m excited to see it this year”.
As the narrative goes, the Steelers finished dead last in rushing offense last season, whether measured by total yardage, yards per carry, or, frankly, the eye test at any point after the first five or six games. There were times that they simply abandoned the run because they had to.
That can’t fall squarely upon the shoulders of James Conner, their former running back, who did a more than respectable job during his three seasons as the featured runner when available, but the team still felt an upgrade here was in order, and they were high on Harris long before the draft process even started.
Over his final two seasons at Alabama, he recorded 460 rushing attempts for 2,690 yards, averaging 5.85 yards per attempt. He put it in the end zone on the ground 39 times, including 26 rushing touchdowns just last season. He also caught 70 passes for 729 yards and another 11 touchdowns, giving him 50 scores over the past 26 games.
Everybody in camp who has spoken about Harris so far has been nothing short of glowing. Even Cameron Heyward noted a tackle attempt of his that he broke, which pissed him off as perhaps the surest tackler on the team, but he said he’ll be happy about it when he’s doing it to other teams in-season.
Then we’ll see about post-season awards. Ben Roethlisberger is the last Steeler to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. Could Harris be next?