Ahead of the start of his second season in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers’ standout running back Najee Harris continues to carry a chip on his shoulder based on the noise that surrounded his selection by the Steelers at No. 24 overall in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Immediately following his selection out of the University of Alabama, Pro Football Focus called the new Steelers’ running back the “worst first-round pick” in the draft. That largely had to do with the fact that the running back position has been largely devalued in today’s pass-first league, as well as the ability of teams to find 1,000-yard rushers late in the draft or on the undrafted free agent market.
Harris had a breakout rookie season though, making the Pro Bowl in Las Vegas and earned a spot on the NFL All-Rookie team while finishing fourth in the NFL in rushing. Harris ran for 1,200 yards and seven touchdown on 307 carries and added 74 receptions for 467 yards and three scores while playing nearly 1,000 snaps as a rookie.
Still, that criticism then still sticks with Harris, who told the New York Post that he doesn’t care to give attention to those who believe in stereotypes that devalue running backs.
“Well, everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” Harris said to the NY Post. “I hate PFF too.
“I mean, there were some people who didn’t like the pick and there are some people who did,” Harris added. “What matters is, I got picked. So, what am I going to do next? Do I come in there and show that I was a bust, or are you going to come in there and take over and show them why a [running back] was picked in the first round. And some people might not think I even did that, too, which is cool. I guess everybody’s entitled to their opinion.”
Harris had his ups and downs as a rookie in the first year of offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s system, which was largely handicapped by one of the worst offensive lines in football, as well as an aging quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. Teams dared Roethlisberger to beat them deep, loading the box against the run, which led to Harris’s production coming more from volume overall, rather than quality success on the ground.
“But personally, I’m going to do everything I can to help the team out, so my teammates and coaches and GM to know that it wasn’t a bad pick,” Harris added. “And I appreciate [the Steelers] for even taking a running back in the first round. But I saw that. I mean, it’s cool. I just laugh at it. I put that with all the other stuff that they say bad about me and you’re not going to get rid of that stuff. So it’s cool. I like it, actually.”
Players tend to search high and low for outside doubt to use as motivation. Fortunately for Harris, he didn’t have to look very hard to find the criticism, especially right away from a major national outlet like Pro Football Focus.
Did that criticism truly play into Harris’s style of play last season as a rookie, and moving forward? It’s hard to tell overall, as he was who he was expected to be as a rookie coming out of Alabama.