Coming off of a strong rookie season overall that saw him rush for 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns on 307 carries while adding 74 receptions, 497 yards and three touchdowns, Pittsburgh Steelers second-year running back Najee Harris is a burgeoning star at the position in the NFL landscape.
While a lot of his production as a rookie was in a rather poor Steelers’ offense and was largely due to volume, Harris carried the Steelers’ offense for stretches as a dual-threat playmaker out of the backfield.
Knowing that, it comes as no surprise that Harris finds himself firmly entrenched in the top 10 rankings across the media landscape at the running back position, including in ESPN’s recent survey composed by Insider Jeremy Fowler, in which league executives, coaches, and players were polled on position player rankings.
Harris, who was not ranked in 2021 due to his rookie status, cracked the top 10 position ranking at running back Tuesday morning, slotting in at No. 8 overall. According to Fowler’s survey, Harris ranked as high as No. 3 in some responses, and was left out of the top 10 in others.
“The Steelers wasted little time getting Harris acclimated to the NFL, handing him the ball nearly 400 times (307 rushes, 74 catches) despite a suspect offensive line and an aging Ben Roethlisberger under center,” Fowler writes regarding Harris’s ranking for ESPN.com. “Harris responded with a Pro Bowl performance, rushing for 1,200 yards and scoring 10 total touchdowns with zero rushing fumbles.
“Some voters knocked Harris’ lack of speed or explosion.”
That makes some sense that voters knocked Harris’ lack of speed or explosion overall, as those are simply not big parts of his game, even dating back to his star turn at the University of Alabama. He’s not an explosive runner and isn’t going to rip off a bunch of 20+ yard runs, and that’s perfectly fine based on his style of running.
He’s more of a bruising back that happens to be great in space and can make defenders miss. Still, some question the lack of suddenness or home run ability. One NFL defensive coach told Fowler that wasn’t a concern for him.
“Not for me. He had 1,200 yards when everyone knew he was going to run it. They knew the Steelers weren’t throwing deep and their offensive line was terrible.”
That’s pretty accurate overall. Teams knew the Steelers weren’t going to be able to consistently throw the deep ball under Roethlisberger in the twilight of his career, so they were able to load the box to take away Harris and the quick-strike passing game. Harris still produced relatively well, especially behind a bad offensive line.
Last season, Harris rushed for 62 first downs, which was third in the NFL.
“He doesn’t have quite the juice as some of the other backs, but he’s a really good all-around player, really good in space … and has great hands,” one executive said to Fowler for ESPN.com.
That’s who Harris is. He’s a very good all-around player, one who runs hard, makes defenders miss consistently, has great hands out of the backfield as a receiving threat, and is a sound pass protector overall. He’s the complete package overall at the position, in terms of what the Steelers want him to do.
The ranking at No. 8 overall feels slightly low overall, especially behind a name like Christian McCaffrey at No. 7, who simply can’t stay healthy at this point in his NFL career. It’s a sound top 5 though with Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara holding it down.
Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon landed at No. 6, while Green Bay’s Aaron Jones and Denver’s Javonte Williams round out the top 10 behind Harris. Names like Austin Ekeler, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders and Antonio Gibson just missed out on the top 10 ranking.