When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft out of the University of Alabama, expectations were that the do-everything running back would play a major role in fixing the league’s worst rushing attack, simply by being himself: a dominant running back with the football in his hands.
Instead, through four weeks Harris has looked like anything but himself while at Alabama, largely due to a rebuilt offensive line in front of him, and a struggling offense as a whole under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Through four weeks, Harris has rushed for 185 yards and one touchdown on 55 carries (3.4 yards per carry) and has added 26 receptions for 178 yards and one touchdown. He leads the league in forced missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, with 27, and has 26 forced missed tackles according to my very own charting.
While those numbers are eye-popping, Harris hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, largely through no fault of his own.
Harris ranks 10th on the list, which includes Indianapolis’s Jonathan Taylor, New York’s Saquon Barkley, and Washington’s Chase Young.
“Though Harris is catching the ball, having collected 26 receptions already, he’s not really making an impact on the ground, where he’s averaging just 3.4 yards per carry,” Brandt writes. “But I still have faith in my pick to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Yes, the Steelers’ offensive line is a hindrance, but I believe one of Harris’ main problems is game-plan-related. To me, he seems like one of those backs who does best when working with a large volume of carries, like Herschel Walker, who used to become more productive the more he carried the ball. Consider that over his final two seasons at Alabama, Harris averaged just over 17 carries per game. Through his first four games in the NFL, meanwhile, he’s topped 15 carries just once. If Harris ends up becoming a bigger focal point of the offense — which would not be out of the question as the Steelers figure out how to proceed with a diminished Ben Roethlisberger — he should pick up the pace down the road.”
The only way Harris picks up the pace down the road, in terms of carries and production on the ground, is if the line takes a significant step forward in front of him, and Roethlisberger starts hitting on throws he’s missing, lightening the box some for Harris to have breathing room. It’s not all on others around him, as Harris has certainly missed some holes, as Alex Kozora has pointed out and Harris has admitted himself.
It’s no time to panic on the first-round running back though. He’s playing exceptionally hard, fighting for every blade of grass, which is all that can be asked of him, in terms of what he can control in the moment.
It’s likely he does bounce back down the road in his rookie season as he grows more accustomed the NFL game, the line gels in front of him, and Roethlisberger — or whomever ends up playing quarterback for the Steelers down the stretch due to impending injury — starts hitting on some throws, lightening the box.