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Finding Najee Harris’ Backup Underrated Need For Steelers

The running back position in today’s NFL isn’t what it was 10-15 years ago. Long gone are the days of that “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality, with the modern game favoring a more pass-happy approach. Even the NFL rulebook has changed over that span, seeming to favor the offense. There are 5,000 yard passers aplenty, while the 30+ carry-per-game running backs seemingly going the way of the dinosaurs. However, there are a few exceptions to that, as teams like the Titans, Browns and the Steelers whose bread and butter is the ground game. Those teams instead prefer to rely on their workhorse backs and play a ball-control style.

The aforementioned Steelers went against that newfound “general thinking” of not taking a running back in the first round last April whenever they selected Alabama’s all-time leading rusher Najee Harris with their first round pick. They got their money’s worth with a Pro Bowl season that included 1,200 yards, 10 touchdowns and 74 catches, highlighted by a 14-catch, 102 yard performance vs. Cincinnati that shows off his receiving prowess. However, one number that stands out like a sore thumb is the number 381, the number of touches he had, which also is a rookie record for the most without a fumble. While Mike Tomlin has a penchant for employing one workhorse back, the number is a reminder that finding a capable backup to Harris is of utmost importance, not only for insurance if he gets injured but also if the team wants a nice return-on-investment of that 2021 first round pick.

The numbers have shown the fact that Tomlin loves to rely on a bellcow. For instance, former All-Pro Le’Veon Bell’s touch log in his final four seasons(I left out 2015 when he tore his ACL) reads like this: 373 in ’14, 336 in ’16, 406 in ’17. Those are tremendous workloads, and he’s bounced around several different teams the last few seasons, resembling an absolute shell of his former self, even though he just turned 30 in February. Also consider that Bell sat out the 2018 season over a contract dispute. This is a cry for help for Harris, and there are some readily available options in the upcoming draft.

As stated earlier, running backs aren’t the commodity they once were, as teams can find quality options and even starters in the later rounds. Outside of the top options like Iowa State’s Breece Hall and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, one name that sticks out as a great change of pace would be Georgia’s James Cook. The younger brother of Vikings’ Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook, James isn’t nearly as built physically as big brother, but he does offer mismatch capabilities, as evidenced by him frequently being flanked out wide to run receiver routes. At 5-foot-11, and 199 pounds he’s obviously not the same stature as Harris but he would provide a versatile chess piece for Matt Canada.

There are several larger backs in this draft as well, which could form a lethal “thunder/thunder” combination with Harris, much like with the aforementioned Le’Veon Bell and ex-Steeler LeGarrette Blount. Florida’s Dameon Pierce has feature back size at 5-foot-10 and 218 pounds. He runs with extreme violence and tackle-breaking ability, likely aided from the fact that he squats 705 pounds. Pierce made NFL Network “Good Morning Football” host Kyle Brandt’s “Angry Runs: 2022 NFL Draft Prospects” list and can be seen showing off his no-nonsense running style on a goal line carry where his helmet is ripped off but is still running with reckless abandon for extra yardage. After acquiring a Senior Bowl invite, Pierce could’ve sat out the Gators’ bowl game but opted to play. According to NFL.com’s Chad Reuter, when pressed as to why, Pierce had a simple answer that should already endear him in the hearts of Steeler fans: “Why? Because I’m a Gator, bro.”

2022 NFL Draft Player Profiles: Florida RB Dameon Pierce

Another great option and a personal favorite of mine is Hassan Haskins of the Big Ten champion Michigan Wolverines. Make no mistake, at 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, he displays cruel intentions every single time he touches the ball and is the embodiment of a power runner. Recruited to Ann Arbor as a running back, he briefly spent time at linebacker before ultimately making the switch back, but you can tell that defensive “hitting” mentality stayed the same on each carry. He ran for 1,327 yards and 20 touchdowns, highlighted by a 169-yard, five-touchdown performance versus rival Ohio State. A third-team AP All-American this past season, Haskins also found himself on Brandt’s “Angry Runs” list, displaying a vicious stiff-arm to take out two defenders on a goal line carry. He put up 27 repetitions of 225 on the bench press at the NFL Combine, which was tops at the position. While at the combine, he said he patterns his game after future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson, and he wasn’t shy about why.

“He can run people over and he can make people miss,” Haskins said, according to Anthony Broome of on3.com, a Wolverines-based sports site. “I feel like I have the same things in my tool bag. I like being the hammer, not the nail. I like to run through people.”

2022 NFL Draft Player Profiles: Michigan RB Hassan Haskins

Going back over past seasons, the Steelers have always seemed to have a Batman to their Robin when it comes to a legitimate backup running back, from Amos Zereoue to Isaac Redman or Najeh Davenport to LeGarrette Blount. The draft later this month would be an ideal place to find someone to save some of the tread on Harris’ tires. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

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