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Is Najee Harris On The Same Career Trajectory Of Another Former Crimson Tide Running Back?

We’ve reached the bye week for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the 2022 season hasn’t gone the way many were hoping for. The team currently sits at 2-6 and has been effectively eliminated from playoff contention barring some wild second half surge down the stretch. The offense is currently the worst in football and the defense looks lost, failing to get pressure on the QB without T.J. Watt in the lineup while giving up numerous splash plays every week without making their own.

However, one of the most disappointing performances by an individual Steeler this season thus far is RB Najee Harris. Harris was projected to build off a strong rookie campaign in 2021 where he was near the top of the league in rushing and caught 74 passes, being a full-fledged workhorse that Pittsburgh drafted him to be in the first round. Expectations were high for Harris in 2022, leading many to believe Harris could have a chance to touch the ball the most of anyone at the position and be a dark horse candidate to lead the league in rushing.

Instead of taking a second-year leap, Harris has seen his impact and productivity plummet compared to his rookie season as he is on-pace to rush for only 767 yards in 17 games while only catching 51 passes for 238 yards. Those rushing totals are nearly half of the 1,200 yards he racked up on the ground in 2021 along with seeing his receiving yardage drop by about half as well (467) compared to last season. In addition to massive drops in yardage, Harris has only score three total TDs at the halfway point of the season compared to the ten total TDs scored in 2021.

The scary this is… we have season this downtrend in another former first-round Alabama running back before.

I have seen many on social media mention former NFL RB Trent Richardson as a player that experienced a similar start to his NFL career in terms of a strong rookie campaign followed by a dud of a second season. Here are some of the numbers for context:

Najee Harris Rookie Season Stats (2021):

17 games played, 307 carries for 1200 yards (3.9 YPC), seven TDs, 94 targets, 74receptions for 467 yards (6.3 YPR) and three TDs

Trent Richardson Rookie Season Stats (2012):

15 games played, 267 carries for 950 yards (3.6 YPC), 11 TDs, 70 targets, 51 receptions for 397 yards (7.2 YPR) and one TD

Najee Harris Second Season Stats (On-Pace 2022):

17 games played, 229 carries for 767 yards (3.3 YPC), two TDs, 60 targets, 51 receptions for 238 yards (4.7 YPR) and four TDs

Trent Richardson Second Season Stats (2013):

16 games played, 188 carries for 563 yards (3.0 YPC), three TDs, 52 targets, 35 receptions for 316 yards (9.0 YPR) and one TD

Again, these aren’t identical statistics, but they do provide context to the drop off Richardson had from his rookie season to his season and the projected drop off for Harris from 2021 to 2022. When watching both runners, it’s evident that Najee Harris possesses better vision that Richardson ever had as a pro as he would often fail to find and hit the proper hole, even if it was properly blocked up. Still, Harris has dealt with his struggles in terms of playing to his strengths, missing open holes at times in attempt to bounce the run outside or try to use his elusiveness to make a play in space rather than relying on his strength and power to pick up additional yardage on contact.

 

Both Harris and Richardson were hampered by poor offensive line play as Pittsburgh has struggled up-front since veterans including Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Feiler left the team. Richardson had to deal with getting traded in his second season from the Cleveland Browns to the Indianapolis Colts, going from a respectable offensive front in Cleveland to one that struggled to open up anything on the ground and also allowed former Colts QB Andrew Luck to get sacked 73 times in his first two seasons.

Granted, Najee Harris had to deal with a Lisfranc injury at the start of training camp this season, likely affecting his play at least to start to 2022 campaign. Still, while Harris is a team captain and has an unparalleled work ethic, the similarities warrant at least a look as running backs that lack that key defining trait often struggle to stick in the league past their rookie contracts. Richardson was built in a similar mold, being a strong, powerful runner that lacked ideal long speed or elusiveness in the open field which proved to be difficult for him to overcome once he got to the league and he couldn’t run through tackles the same way he did in college.

Harris still is the unquestioned leader in the backfield according to the coaching staff, even though rookie UDFA RB Jaylen Warren has been getting more work as Pittsburgh’s third down back and has been more effective in his limited usage this season. Here’s hoping that having more time to rest during the bye week and a lighter strength of schedule will lead to Harris having more success in the second half of the season than he has had to start 2022. His upside may be limited due to his skill set, but should Pittsburgh improve their offensive line and make changes to their system next season, Harris could very well produce similar numbers that he did as a rookie.

What are your thoughts on RB Najee Harris? Do you see the similarities between Najee and fellow former Alabama RB Trent Richardson? What differences do you see in the two and do you see Harris rebounding from a slow start to his second season better than Richardson did? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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