As the No. 24 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, running back Najee Harris was expected to be leaned on heavily as a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Throughout the 2021 season, those expectations of being a workhorse running back for the black and gold were met as Harris ran the football 307 times for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns, adding another 74 receptions out of the backfield for 467 yards and three touchdowns, turning in a rather impressive first season in the NFL overall despite playing in a dull, unimaginative offense that struggled to open running lanes and protect the passer overall.
Much of Harris’ production came due to quantity of touches, rather than quality of said touches. His yards per carry (an archaic stat overall) sat at just 3.9 for the season, and his average yards per touch sat at just 4.37 on the year, well below numbers from standouts Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook and more.
Still, Harris was solid in 2021. His production in the black and gold in his first season, and the bright future ahead overall saw him land on Nick Shook’s All-Under-25 Team for NFL.com Tuesday morning, holding down the running back spot with Taylor, who was an MVP candidate in 2021 for the Indianapolis Colts.
“Harris deserves a steak dinner and a new car as a reward for how much he carried the Steelers’ offense last season. As a rookie with plenty of wear on his tires from 638 career carries at Alabama, Harris looked fresh as a daisy in Pittsburgh, piling up nearly half of his entire collegiate total in one NFL season with 307 totes,” Shook writes regarding Harris’ placement on the All-Under-25 team. “He also nearly equaled his receptions total from college (80) in his rookie campaign, catching 74 passes. Yes, that’s 381 touches in one season for a rookie. It’s a lot — in fact, it led the NFL — but Harris handled it well, scoring 10 total touchdowns and gaining 1,667 scrimmage yards. Does volume inflate that total a bit? Yes, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that Harris is a stud. Here’s hoping the Steelers don’t wear him out too quickly.”
Shook’s line about it not taking a genius to see Harris is a stud is spot-on. Despite being in an offense that made everything look like a serious struggle, Harris was one of the few bright spots in 2021. He forced missed tackles at an absurd rate, leading the NFL by a wide margin in forced missed tackles on combined runs and catches in his first year in the NFL, doing that behind arguably the league’s worst offensive line overall.
He was sound in pass protection too, and really was as advertised from his time at Alabama, transitioning into the NFL with relative ease overall.
There’s no denying he’s one of the next wave of stars in the NFL, especially at the running back position. Hopefully the Steelers don’t fully run the wheels off of him before they’re truly ready to ascend back into Super Bowl contenders once again. A continued rebuild of the offensive line and the development of Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett will go a long way towards taking some pressure off of Harris moving forward.