How Steelers should use RB Najee Harris during his rookie contract
By Tommy Jaggi
The Steelers have some choices to make when it comes to Najee Harris’s workload. Here’s how he should be used on his rookie contract.
The whole offseason, fans had a trustworthy suspicion that the Steelers were going to take a running back as early as the first round in the 2021 NFL Draft. After finishing dead last in the league in both rushing yards and attempts last season, both head coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II were adamant about fixing the issues on the ground before the following season.
The Najee Harris pick didn’t come as a big surprise for Steelers fans, as he was one of the most frequently mocked players to a single team prior to the draft. You better believe that the Steelers didn’t take a running back with the 24th overall pick to have him watch and learn from the sidelines to begin his career. Harris will be on the field often.
When it comes to deploying your feature running back, there are essentially two schools of thought. A team could give their lead back 20-25 touches per game and rarely have them leave the field (e.g. Le’Veon Bell), or they could use more of a rotation in an effort to preserve the health and longevity of their star running back – kind of like Alvin Kamara.
So which method should the Steelers use during Najee Harris’s rookie contract? Is it worth lightening his workload in hopes that his body holds up beyond his rookie deal and fifth-year option?
Steelers should take the ‘Le’Veon Bell’ approach with Najee Harris
In short, no. The Steelers should not be overly concerned with Harris’s longevity beyond his rookie season. In other words, they should take the ‘Le’Veon Bell’ approach with him.
For starters, some running backs are simply going to wear down faster than others, and there just isn’t much you can do about it. As hard as you can try to avoid it, certain running backs just seem to be constantly banged up in the NFL.
Fortunately, Harris has been very healthy during his time at Alabama (knock on wood), but that doesn’t guarantee that this will continue in the NFL. Still, Pittsburgh should not put him on any sort of snap count, if you will, in an effort to preserve his body.
The biggest factor in all of this is that even if Harris does stay mostly healthy in his first five seasons (rookie deal and fifth-year option), should the Steelers even want to pay for him beyond that point? By this time, Harris will be old for running back standards (28, to be precise), and he could already have 1,500 to 2,000 touches under his belt.
It’s sad the way that running backs are used and abused in the NFL, but this is a business, and overpaying for a worn-down player in decline would not be wise.
Obviously, the Steelers should look for opportunities to preserve Harris when the situation calls for it. If they are up big in a game or if a contest is out of reach, there’s no sense of pounding their feature back into the ground in a game that doesn’t matter. However, running back decline age is just 26 years old, and Harris will be two years beyond that when his rookie contract is over.
Running backs just don’t stay on top long in the NFL. That’s just the sad truth when it comes to the position. Still, Najee Harris could potentially give the Steelers five great seasons before they need to move on with a younger, cheaper player. Pittsburgh should use Harris much like the used Le’Veon Bell and just hope that his body holds up a little better with all of his touches.