Steelers RB Najee Harris must have a better, longer career than Le’Veon Bell

Najee Harris #22 of the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Najee Harris #22 of the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Steelers are hoping to get one of the best running backs in the league out of Najee Harris, but how many good seasons can they expect?

Whether you were a fan of the selection or not, the Pittsburgh Steelers took a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft. It was the first time since they have done so since taking Rashard Mendenhall in 2008, and just the second time drafting a running back in round one since selecting Tim Worley in 1989.

At this point, we obviously wish all the best for Najee Harris and hope that he has a lengthy, productive career with the Steelers. However, if history is any indication, running backs just don’t last that long and their time at the top is extremely brief.

This has never been more true than it is today in the NFL. Former high draft choices at the position, like Todd Gurley, have seen their career rise to the top and fizzle away at a moment’s notice. The last time the Steelers spent a first-round pick on a running back, he had just three productive seasons with Pittsburgh and ultimately retired at the age of 26.

The player that everyone seems to be comparing Najee Harris to is Steelers former second-round pick, Le’Veon Bell. It’s not hard to see why these comparisons are drawn. Both Harris and Bell possess a very similar build (roughly 6’1” and 230 pounds each), and they have similar athletic traits and play styles. Neither running back has breakaway speed, but they are very shifty for their size and have very good hands in the passing game and the patience and vision to hit the hole and run through contact.

Harris must be better for Steelers than Bell was

As good as Le’Veon Bell was for the Steelers – and he was probably one of the best in Pittsburgh’s history for a brief stint – Najee Harris must be better. Anything less than this would be a disappointment.

During his rookie season, many questioned the Le’Veon Bell pick. The big running back had a respectable year carting the ball, but he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. In 2015, most of his season was lost due to an ACL tear after being tackled awkwardly be  Vontaze Burfict and his 2018 season was forfeited due to his holdout.

Subtracting these lost seasons, Bell gave Pittsburgh just 3 good years of production… That’s it. The Steelers dodged a bullet that he didn’t sign the extension that the team offered him prior to his holdout. When Bell left the team in 2019 to join the New York Jets, he had nothing left in the tank as he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. Bell has been a complete non-factor ever since.

Not only does Harris’ career need to outlast Bell’s in order to prove to be worth such a high draft choice, but he needs to be an even better player. I think this is something that is attainable. Though Bell was one of the best at his position in the passing game, he had one major flaw: his explosive-play rate.

Bell has always been a back that could churn out 4-8 yards a pop against six and seven-man boxes, but he has rarely been able to bust out the big plays. In 2017, Bell should have been in the prime of his career at age 25. But despite his 321 carries, he managed a dismal 3 touches of 20-plus yards.

Like Bell, Harris is also missing that extra gear, but he still might be a tick faster than Bell. Without testing numbers this year, we don’t know exactly how Harris would have clocked in, but his top-end speed has always been a knock on his game.

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Bell’s career fell off a cliff at age 27, and Najee Harris is already 23 years old. Not every running back is the same, and perhaps his career path follows more closely to that of a player like Steven Jackson. We need to hope this is the case. If Harris doesn’t prove to be a better player than Le’Veon Bell with a longer ride on top, it will be really hard to justify this pick for the Steelers.