A lot has rested upon the shoulders of Najee Harris since he first heard his named called after “the Pittsburgh Steelers select” during the 2022 NFL Draft. But when you’re a running back taken in the first round, especially when you’re the first taken, that’s generally a given. He knew it was coming, and he embraced it, but he also acknowledged the road that put him on—especially as a rookie.
“Last year, no other offensive rookie was put in the position I had to be put in”, he told reporters yesterday during minicamp. “What I mean by that is, no other offensive player really had to come in and be like, the head honcho of the team, and be the focal point of that team. Like, a lot leaned on that one person”.
He’s not just blowing smoke. Harris led the entire NFL in touches during the 2021 season. No other running back in the entire league put up the same usage numbers as he did in terms of the percentage of time that he spent on the field. Oh, and he also led all running backs in receptions, one of four to have 60 or more.
“I took that in. They told me that, and I put my head up high, and I knew that it was gonna be a long season”, he said, “because Ben [Roethlisberger] was coming out, finishing up his career, so a lot leaned on my shoulders. And if any time they give me the crown, in a way, to be that type of guy, then I’m gonna take that and run with it”.
This all came in the context of his seemingly getting stronger as the season progressed—thanks to some help from some weary defenders. “As the season went on, I also knew that people don’t want to tackle later in the season, so that worked out to my advantage”, he said.
Historically, head coach Mike Tomlin has tried to take a little something off the plate of his rookie starters, which we have seen in recent years with the likes of Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. It’s much harder to do with offensive linemen, of course, but they could have given Harris more time on the sideline. They did not.
Heading into year two, he has begrudgingly acknowledged that he could see a bit more time on the sidelines for the sake of sparing his body, a conversation he said that he is having with the coaching staff while trying to wriggle away as much playing time as possible for himself.
Harris went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate at the end of his rookie season, rushing for 1,200 yards on 307 rushing attempts with seven touchdowns. He also caught 74 passes for another 467 yards and three more touchdowns, giving him 10 scores in total during his rookie season.
Beyond that, he also showed exceptional reliability. Despite a league-high 381 touches during the regular season, he never fumbled, the largest touch total without a fumble by a rookie in NFL history, and one of the highest figures for any player recorded.