There isn’t a lot of debate about the fact that second-year running back Najee Harris is going to be the most important player on offense this year, the first season of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. That is the expectation, that the offense is going to have to go through him, on the ground and through the air, for the unit to have success.
But that also extends beyond the field. The Alabama product has actually spoken at length, even going back to last season, about his preparations for stepping into a leadership role, steps toward which he has taken this offseason, and which Cameron Heyward, the team’s defensive captain, believes needs to be in full bloom this year.
“Going forward, as a leader of this team, I feel like Najee’s got to be the guy on offense”, he recently told John Middlekauff on the 3 & Out podcast. “They’re gonna be giving him the rock a lot more offense, so he’s got to be willing to not only let his play speak, but he’s got to speak as well”.
Drafted in the first round last season, Harris led the NFL in touches and rushed for 1,200 yards with 1,667 yards from scrimmage. He scored 10 times and was ultimately named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, replacing the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Mixon.
Roethlisberger was the guy on offense last year in a way he never was before, following the retirements or departures of so many other key players on that side of the ball, particularly center Maurkice Pouncey. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the only other one who came close, but he spent most of the year injured.
Now Big Ben is retired, and Smith-Schuster is in Kansas City. Nobody else has really shown leadership credentials, so it’s got to be Harris, who has always appeared to have the makeup for such a role even when he was coming out of school.
“You’ve had Ben Roethlisberger for so long. This is a great opportunity for Najee Harris to be the catalyst for everybody on offense”, Heyward said. “There’s so many moving parts, so many new positions we have, but Najee should be the staple. Najee should be the guy that Coach T refers to as the straw that stirs the drink. Najee’s got to be that way on offense”.
Harris is already the straw that stirs the drink from a schematic standpoint, the same way that Le’Veon Bell was at the height of his powers. But at the same time, he is also going to have to be that voice in the locker room that gathers everybody together and sets them focused on a collective purpose.
But it’s a role he’s been preparing for, a role that the team drafted him with the expectation that he would eventually adopt, for the better part of the last year at least. He knew this was coming, and it also very much seems to be what he wants. He won’t be alone—other guys like James Daniels and Pat Freiermuth can begin to shoulder some of the load, as well as whoever the starting quarterback is—but he’s going to be the face that everybody sees, and so he also has to be the voice that everybody hears.