The NFL moniker often linked to the league is “Not For Long” and this phrase holds true at the running back position more than any other. The average career length for a RB in the big leagues is 2.57, which isn’t staggering by any means. The position has been devalued heavily over the last decade or so, as more of an emphasis has been placed on the high-flying passing attacks. Many teams often go with the platoon approach, using several different running backs. The first round running backs are even rarer, but several do exist, including Pittsburgh’s rookie Pro Bowler last year, Najee Harris.
After selecting the All-American from Alabama with the 24th overall pick in 2021, Harris became the team’s workhorse from the gate, breaking Hall Of Famer Franco Harris’ single-season rookie rushing record set back in 1972. A large back with soft hands, his versatility was put on full display in the team’s week three loss to Cincinnati. Harris tan for only 40 yards on 14 carries, with a very paltry 2.9 YPC average, but he caught 14 balls for 102 yards, setting the franchise mark for catches in a single game by a RB. This game was an embodiment of his entire season, and when all was said and done, Harris led the entire league in touches with 381.
With a past-his-prime Ben Roethlisberger, you could feel a shift in the offensive identity of the team over the second half of the season. Now with #7 retired, Harris will become the unquestioned engine of the Steelers offense moving forward, especially to help out breaking in the new quarterback, be it Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett. It begs the question though, will Harris once again lead the league in touches? The common sense in me hopes no, simply because I’m a huge fan of Harris and want to see him around in the Steel City for a long time. I’ve been beating the table for some time now for the team to get a legitimate backup in tow behind him, much like when the team had DeAngelo Williams backing up Le’Veon Bell. When Bell got hurt, there was little, if any, drop-off between the two. What’s currently behind Harris on the depth chart isn’t going to wow anyone by any stretch of the imagination.
Several things considered in this, it definitely would not surprise me at all if Harris will again lead the league in touches, becoming the first player to do so since Hall Of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson did it in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, with 398 and 451 touches, respectively. Derrick Henry, the Titans‘ workhorse, had 397 touches in 2020, and if not for injury last year, looked on pace to do it again. However, every season since LT, it’s been a different player each year, with the likes of Arian Foster, DeMarco Murray and Bell, who in 2017 led the league with 406 touches. Which brings me to my next point, and that’s Mike Tomlin’s affinity to go with one featured running back, as he’s previously stated it allows that runner, and the offense, to get into a rhythm. This became evident his first season as HC of the team way back in 2007, when he famously proclaimed that he was going to run “Fast” Willie Parker “until the wheels come off.”
Earlier this week, Harris joined the Rich Eisen Show, and Eisen made it a point to bring up his touch total from last season. He asked him if he could go for 400 touches this season and his reply showed he has no fear whatsoever, confidently stating he could go for 500.
“I told them every game, ‘If this is the way we’re winning, I can carry the load.’ I train to carry loads,” Harris told Eisen. “It’s not something that I haven’t done before. I did it in college, high school, NFL. For me to get that much carries, I was like, man, is we winning games? It was a long streak where someone was saying if I have 25 carries, then we’re undefeated. So OK, this is our identity right here. Let’s keep this going on, let’s keep this going. Listen, if I get 500 carries, as long as we’re winning, it doesn’t really matter.”
The 500 touch mark is very high, as nobody in NFL history has ever crossed that threshold, with James Wilder of Tampa being the closest with 492 touches in 1984. However, I do see 400 being very realistic for Harris in 2022. The coaches have all been on-record stating they want to decrease Harris’ massive workload entering year two, but zebras can’t change their stripes, and we all know exactly how much Tomlin loves bell-cow running backs. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, Harris is that and then some. If scat back Anthony McFarland can stay healthy for the duration of a 17-game season, I could see him siphoning some touches here and there, as game script dictates, as he has some wiggle that other members of the running back room don’t. Benny Snell also has shown before he can be a good player in short yardage situations. Keep in-mind the team’s two undrafted rookies in Mataeo Durant, who the team gave the largest UDFA for a rookie RB in team history, and also Jaylen Warren, the cousin of Willie Parker.
When all is said and done though, this team will likely be in plenty of close, dog-fight style games this season. And with those types of games, you always want your best players on the field, and Harris is head and shoulders above anything else in the RB room, so Tomlin is going to make sure his bell-cow is out there. I’ve compared the team’s QB situation in the past to that of the Titans and Ryan Tannehill, as I believe Trubisky should see similar success, considering the weapons and coaching staff he has now that he didn’t before. The luxury both have is being able to hand the ball off to stud runners who are more than capable of handling heavy workloads. Whether or not Henry’s injury last year was a sign of his body finally breaking down or not remains to be seen. However, I firmly believe Harris will be out front yet again, leading the league in touches as he’s looked upon as the fulcrum with which the Steelers offense will live, and die by.