Could Najee Harris be a bust behind Steelers offensive line?

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22). Mandatory Credit: Karl Roster/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22). Mandatory Credit: Karl Roster/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers had one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in 2020. Could Najee Harris waste a promising career behind bad blocking?

For those of you who have been reading my work for some time now, you are already aware that I was not a big fan of the Najee Harris pick in the first round this year. This is hardly an indictment against the player, but the position.

In today’s NFL, there is little evidence to suggest that running backs matter nearly as much as they did in the past. Workhorse backs are typically drafted inside the top three rounds, and teams have gotten into a habit of wearing the tread off them and running them into the ground before finding a younger, fresher running back a few years later – it’s sad but true.

Najee Harris is a good player. He was brilliant during his time at Alabama, and was one of the best backs in the nation in terms of his do-it-all ability, as Harris excels as a runner, receiver, and pass-protector. However, there is one thing that Harris had with Alabama that he is unlikely to have with the Steelers: a dominant offensive line in front of him.

Alabama easily had the best offensive line in college football last season. Not only were players like Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson high draft choices, but the Crimson Tide has a few other linemen who blocked for Harris who could prove to be even better when they get drafted.

Though Harris is going from running behind a college offensive line to an NFL offensive line, Pittsburgh was one of the worst teams in the league when it came to run blocking in 2020, and NFL defenses are much more stout. This begs the question: could Najee Harris be considered a bust in the NFL if he doesn’t perform well behind a bad offensive line?

Could Steelers RB be considered a bust if the offensive line doesn’t improve?

No matter what your opinion on Najee Harris or the value of taking running backs in the first round, everyone should agree that there is a window of possibility for this to happen. We have seen some comparably good running back prospects fail miserably in the pros behind poor offensive lines.

As a junior at Alabama back in 2011, Trent Richardson put up more rushing yards and touchdowns than Najee Harris while averaging slightly more yards per carry, according to Sports Reference. Sadly, his dominance in college and the fact that he was the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft didn’t mean a thing once he was running behind a bad offensive line in Cleveland.

Leonard Fournette was much of the way. Despite being the 4th overall pick in 2016, the Jaguars running back was very underwhelming and the team ultimately cut him after just three seasons. Obviously, neither player turned out to be great in the NFL, but it matters where you land.

Fortunately, there is hope for Najee Harris – and a good deal of it. Had his first year been in 2020 behind an ailing offensive line and the direction of offensive coordinator, Randy Fitchner, I have a feeling that fans would have been really disappointed with his rookie season. This is because so much of a running back’s success is tied to both the offensive line and the offensive scheme (we can get into more of this later). Had Harris played behind an offensive line that failed to create holes and lacked creativity, he could have been bad as a rookie.

The good news is that things should look very different in 2020. While the offensive line lost three starters in Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, and Matt Feiler, they could actually improve as a run-blocking unit with some fresh blood upfront.

Kevin Dotson was thoroughly impressive in limited action as a rookie, and he will now be a full-time starter at left guard. Likewise, the return of a healthy David DeCastro and the addition of a fiery, athletic center in Kendrick Green could help generate more push on the ground. However, the biggest difference will be having a more innovative offensive coordinator in Matt Canada.

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It’s hard to predict exactly what the Steelers offense will look like in 2021, but making some of these changes during the 2020 offseason could prove beneficial to the team and the success of Najee Harris. There’s always a chance this unit will continue to struggle, but I have a feeling we won’t be calling Najee Harris a bust.