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Najee Harris Understands The Importance Of Reducing Role: ‘I’m Glad As Hell I Have Jaylen Right Now’

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris came into the NFL with high expectations put on him from the organization, the fan base, as well as himself.

Pittsburgh thought highly enough of Harris to take him 24th overall in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Normally, it is frowned upon to take a running back in the first round due to the shelf life of the position and the value above replacement from a higher pedigree back to a mid-round draft pick or undrafted free agent.

This did not deter Pittsburgh from selecting Harris who was a workhorse back at Alabama, amassing 718 touches for 4,624 yards and 57 total TDs in four seasons with the Crimson Tide. For a team that has always had a workhorse back under HC Mike Tomlin, the hope was that Harris would help revive the running game that had plagued the Steelers’ offense the last few seasons.

Harris played well in his first season in Black and Gold albeit on substantial volume and poor overall efficiency. Harris was elected to the Pro Bowl for his efforts in 2021, carrying the ball 307 times for 1,200 yards and seven TDs while chipping in another 74 receptions for 467 yards and three scores as a receiver. However, things appeared to take a turn for the worst at the start of Najee’s second season as he suffered a Lisfranc injury in training camp that hampered him to start the 2022 campaign. On top of injury, Harris was more inefficient in 2022 than in 2021 due to a combination of poor OL play and his own tentativeness as a runner.

 

Harris’ poor first half of the season as well as the emergence of UDFA rookie RB Jaylen Warren had many for Harris’ role on offense to be reduced to allow Warren to play more. Warren took over the third down duties for Harris early in the season and started to see more work as well. For a player with the work ethic and drive that Harris has, it was a tough adjustment, but one he recognized needed to take place to keep him fresh and prolong his career as a running back in the National Football League.

“I argued with [coach Eddie Faulkner] going in the preseason vs. the Lions when I came back,” Harris said according to ESPN’s Brooke Pryor. “But just sitting down and having an actual talk about me and my longevity … they want me here. If I want to keep playing. If I want to be healthy. If I want, when I retire, to not walk out on one leg. I’m glad as hell I have Jaylen right now. Somebody to come in there and to do what he does and to help me out and spell me.”

Najee Harris had his best performance of the season as he toted the rock 20 times for 99 yards while Warren got nine carries for 37 yards. Warren did mix in more in the passing game, catching three passes for 40 yards, but Harris still led the way in offensive snaps with 50 (60%) compared to Warren’s 36 (43%).

While Najee Harris saw his lowest snap percentage of the season, he looked fresh and rejuvenated as a runner, picking up multiple successful runs on the ground including a long of 36 yards against the Saints, his best of the season. Harris mentioned prior to the season that he’d carry the ball 500 times if it meant that the Steelers were winning football games. The opposite was the case here as less was more for Harris on Sunday, ceding snaps to Warren, but being more efficient with the carries he got which nearly pushed him over the century mark.

While Harris has been a feature back his entire football career, Father Time remains undefeated when it comes to wear and tear on an NFL player’s body. This is especially the case for running backs who tend to break down near the end of their rookie contract, leading many teams to choose to move on and invest in a new runner with fresher legs. Harris is beginning to understand this as he begins the home stretch of his second NFL season and can appreciate Warren’s contributions as a good player in his own right on the football field as well as the fact that the inclusion of Warren is saving Harris from himself.

In the NFL, your best ability is your availability. For a physical runner like Najee Harris, the best way to have a long, fruitful career in the NFL is to give up some work now to have more work come to him down the road rather than breaking down early from overuse.

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