Najee Harris is proving why Steelers were wrong drafting a RB so high

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22). Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22). Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports /

Najee Harris is a very talented football player, but he hasn’t yielded the results you would come to expect from the 24th overall pick. Here’s why the Steelers were wrong.

I’ve said this from the very beginning and I will continue to say it: Najee Harris is a good player, but a bad selection in the first round. This isn’t an indictment on the talent; rather the value (or lack thereof) of the running back position in today’s NFL.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected the Alabama workhorse in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, I was frustrated beyond measure. Not because I thought that Harris was a bad football player, but because running backs — regardless of the talent — shouldn’t be selected in the first round. The evidence points to this.

Here’s a look at each of the running backs that have been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2009, via Pro Football Reference:

This isn’t to say that Najee Harris can’t be better than most of the names on this list, but the proof is in the pudding. What has he done for the Steelers so far this year that would constitute as first-round play?… Nothing, really.

While fans love to point out his volume numbers, from an efficiency standpoint, Harris has actually been slightly below average this season. Of course, the same fans will be quick to point out that the offensive line has been the biggest issue with this team.

I’m not disagreeing… but if a running back was worth taking in the first round, shouldn’t he be able to overcome some deficiencies on the offensive line? If the answer is no, what is the sense of taking a player so high who depends on everyone else in front of him to do their job at a high level in order to find success? Wouldn’t all running backs perform at a higher level if their line is blocking well?

I did a little research, and it turns out that James Conner actually had a higher broken-tackle rate in 3 of his last 4 seasons than what Najee Harris has for the Steelers right now, according to advanced stats from Pro Football Reference. In addition, Conner has averaged more rushing yards after contact every year than Harris has this season since this became an official stat in 2018.

Yet, the masses are still claiming they wouldn’t take anyone else if they had the choice. Pro Football Focus analytics intern, Tej Seth, charted the ‘rushing yards over expected’ for every starting running back in the league entering Week 12. Najee Harris ranked 22nd:

The data doesn’t lie. While fans want to believe that the Steelers made the right decision spending elite draft capital on a 23-year-old running back who lacks breakaway speed, almost every shred of evidence points to the contrary.

I thoroughly believe that Harris is a quality running back who has the potential to be one of the best players in the league at his position. However, his future success — like every other running back in the NFL — is tied directly to the state of the offensive line, scheme, and game plan.

The Steelers got a good player in Harris, but other than touching the ball a lot, he hasn’t been particularly exceptional at anything he has done so far. Again, if this is due to the offensive line, then it goes to prove that Najee is only as good as the guys in front of him — which many of you already know.

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I have nothing against the player at all. I think Najee Harris is a talented running back and a fun-loving young man with a good personality. However, I’ve had an issue with the pick from day one, and he’s done nothing so far to prove he should have been taken with the 24th overall pick.