Is Najee Harris’ Workload Going To Be A Long-Term Concern?

After the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, he became a Day One starter and instant impact player. The Steelers certainly weren’t going to draft a running back in Round One for the first time since Rashard Mendenhall in 2008 to have him sit on the bench. But even considering his high draft status, Harris’ usage in his first two seasons puts him in historic company.

Harris recorded a whopping 381 touches as a rookie in 2021, leading the league, before falling to a still-impressive 313 touches as a sophomore. His 694 combined touches over his first two seasons have him tied for 10th among players all time. This mark trails only six Hall of Famers (Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, Eric Dickerson, Curtis Martin, Marshall Faulk, and Earl Campbell) and four guys who would all comfortably make the Hall of Very Good if such a thing existed (Eddie George, Otis Anderson, Chris Johnson, and Matt Forte).

This is outstanding company for Harris, and there’s no denying that his first two seasons have been impressive. Despite fairly average efficiency numbers, Harris has taken control of the Pittsburgh backfield the way not many other guys have done in their first two seasons. However, some arguments exist for Harris to see a reduced workload going forward.

While the top 10 guys on the list all had fantastic NFL careers, scroll a little further down and you’ll find some cautionary tales. Coming in at 13th on the list is Billy Sims, who ripped off back-to-back 1,300-plus rushing-yard seasons in his first two NFL campaigns. Knee injuries derailed his promising career and he never hit even 1,100 rushing yards again.

Similar can be said for No. 19 on the list, Domanick Williams. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to open his career, then played 11 great games the following season before suffering a knee injury that ended his career. While Harris has been incredibly durable, playing every game in his two seasons with the Steelers and in his last three with Alabama, he did deal with knee discomfort during November of last season after a Lisfranc injury in his foot at the beginning of the season, which limited his effectiveness.

If Harris is going to see a reduced workload in year three, backup running back Jaylen Warren will likely be the recipient of those touches. Despite Warren being an undrafted free agent, he put up solid numbers his rookie season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on 77 attempts. After not seeing the field much to start the season, Warren emerged as Pittsburgh’s third-down back in week five. After averaging just one target per game from weeks 1-4, the Steelers made a concerted effort to get him five targets in week 5. From then on, he averaged 2.2 targets per game, and I expect this number to only go up in 2023.

With Harris’ efficiency not being as good as some of the all-time backs on the usage list, it makes sense to give Warren more of a look. Pittsburgh trusted him as the third-down back last season, and that role should continue. It wouldn’t be surprising if he picked up a few more carries, as well.

Harris has been the guy in the Steelers’ backfield ever since he set foot on Heinz Field in 2021. But if Pittsburgh wants him to keep him around long-term, it will likely have to limit his mileage in 2023 and beyond.

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