One of the easiest tasks this year for those who cover the Pittsburgh Steelers has been to find coaches and teammates who are willing to offer glowing praise to rookie running back Najee Harris, their first-round pick who has been established as the nucleus of their offense.
The Alabama product has 165 touches on the season for 752 yards from scrimmage, and five touchdowns. Only Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, who is now done for the season with a foot injury, had more touches.
While Pittsburgh doesn’t have a stellar backfield beside him, though, Harris has earned that workload through the effort that he has put in all offseason, something that defenders like Cameron Heyward found themselves annoyed by—because they were the ones who had to try to tackle him during training camp. T.J. Watt was just glad he got to avoid that, while he was sitting out negotiating his new contract.
“That’s the nice thing that I missed, I didn’t have to go up against him, but I was able to see from afar, all the one-handed catches”. He told Rich Eisen yesterday. “And just, you know in college you see the running backs that, no matter where you are on the football field, they always finish their run through the end zone. You always think that’s kind of a little extra and doing too much, but a guy like that, he just really wanted to get his conditioning in”.
Harris has been the kind of professional whom the Steelers have had to teach how to take a rest, rather than to try to motivate him to work. And that’s not just on the practice field. Both running backs coach Eddie Faulkner and head coach Mike Tomlin have relayed anecdotes about how much film he wants to watch. But that’s the sort of work that goes into being the player he is.
“No matter where we were on the field, over at Heinz Field during training camp, the number one thing that always stuck out to me was, he would run the ball into the end zone, every single rep he had”, Watt said of the rookie’s training camp. “It was just one of those things that stuck out as to what kind of person he is, the type of preparation he’s willing to put in to being a great player, and nothing’s really surprised me as far as the success that he’s had”.
All of that work and preparation is paying off, but he understands better than anybody who much work is still left to do. He knows he’s not yet a finished product, still learning how to read defenses in the NFL, both before the snap and after the snap, for example.
But it’s not like he’s going to stop working anytime soon. It’s just not how he’s wired. And that’s why he plays at the level that he has, and why his arrow is so directly pointing up.