Last season, rookie Pro Bowl running back Najee Harris etched his name into the Steelers’ record books as he eclipsed Franco Harris’ rookie rushing record, albeit with the added benefit of three extra games, running for 1,200 yards and seven scores. After leading the entire league in touches with 381, Harris proved he is the definition of a workhorse back, so what does he have in store as he enters his sophomore year?
For starters, despite earlier reports of having gained twelve pounds, Harris went on the record letting everybody know he only gained two, and his current playing weight is 244 pounds. At OTA’s, this was evident in his lower half, as his tree trunk legs looked noticeably more chiseled. The added weight should come in handy as he looks to become the focal point of an offense transitioning from the Ben Roethlisberger era. Whether it’s free agent Mitch Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett under center, the run game looks to become the identity of this team moving forward. So that now means Harris, not #7, becomes the fulcrum of the offense.
When looking into the annals of the top rushing seasons in team history, Harris’ rookie season ranks 13th. With the looming emphasis that will be placed on the run game, is there a chance Harris will increase upon the 307 carries he had last season and possibly approach 390, which is exactly the amount Barry Foster had in the ’92 season? In that season, quarterbacked by the likes of Neil O’Donnell and Bubby Brister, Foster produced the greatest regular season rushing output in team history with 1,690 yards.
That type of season should definitely be within the realm of possibility for Harris, barring injury. Head Coach Mike Tomlin has a known affinity to ride one workhorse back and is going to, as he likes to put it, “ride him until the wheels fall off”, despite reports of the team looking to lessen his massive workload from last year. He managed to do his damage last year while running behind arguably one of, if not the, worst offensive lines in football. The team took several steps in free agency to try and rectify this problem, picking up arguably the top guard on the market in James Daniels, the former second-round pick of the Bears. The team also picked up center Mason Cole from the Vikings. Both seem to be sufficient upgrades from last year, over the likes of Trai Turner and rookie Kendrick Green, who struggled mightily making the shift from guard to center.
Far too often last year, Harris was creating yards on his own, facing stacked defensive fronts loading up to stop him as they chose not to respect a declining Roethlisberger. With more sufficient blocking in front of him, coupled with the mobility assets that both Trubisky and Pickett possess, Harris should find many more open running lanes than he did last year, resulting in more big play opportunities. Think back to the victory over the Browns in early January in which Harris ran for 188 yards, including a 37-yard TD run with less than a minute remaining, gift-wrapping Big Ben a victory in his final home game. Throughout the night, Harris routinely found himself breaking free into the open field, punishing and flattening defenders en route to chunk gains. The team undoubtedly expects more of this from #22 in ’22. Count Cole among them, as he’s been on the record stating the O-line as a unit wants to make it a point to get Harris 2,000 yards.
“That is why you play offensive line, to turn around and hand the ball to a guy like that,” Cole said in an interview with Teresa Varley on Steelers.com in April. “I was texting him and said we have to get you to 2,000 yards in a season. That is the goal.”
When dealing with NFL players, analysts and fans alike love player comparisons. Due to their large statures, punishing running-styles and both having had great success while playing for Alabama, a very common comparison for Harris is the Titans’ Derrick Henry. “King Henry” has been a machine for the Titans the past few years, as the 2020 Offensive Player of the Year and two-time NFL rushing champ already has a 2,000-yard season to his resume, running for 2,027 in ’20.
Harris still has a ways to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Henry, and 2,000-yard seasons are outliers, not a dime-a-dozen occurrence. However, only 490 yards separated Harris from topping the team’s single-season rushing list last season, and if we figure in the OL upgrades plus the running threat that both QB’s possess to neutralize defenses, is Barry Foster’s record a reasonable possibility for Harris? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.