Najee Harris had a big rookie season from a statistical standpoint, but here’s why some teams simply aren’t afraid of the Pittsburgh Steelers running back.
Sometimes I think that we can have a perspective of running backs that is a bit skewed. Because some backs touch the ball so much, they tend to get overvalued at times. Fantasy football certainly doesn’t help with this.
When it comes to Najee Harris, many of you already know how I feel about him. My opinion has been the same from day one, and it hasn’t changed after his rookie season. From the gate, I’ve gone on record saying that I think Harris is a quality running back prospect, but I simply couldn’t have taken him in the first round.
This is partially because of the devaluation of the RB position in today’s NFL and partially due to some factors coming into the league that caused me to give him a second-round grade during the 2021 pre-draft process.
Harris had ideal size and the ability to shed defenders, but much of the tread on his tires had already been used prior to entering the league and his bruising style usually doesn’t lead to longevity in the NFL. Knowing that we might only be getting good play out of his rookie contract is a big factor in itself.
Perhaps the biggest trait (and really one of the only ones) that Najee was lacking was elite speed. It was very easy to tell that this running back wasn’t going to be chunking off 20+ yard plays routinely in the NFL. In fact, his explosive play rate was one of the worst in the league.
Though he was a Pro Bowler as a rookie thanks to racking up nearly 1,700 scrimmage yards, NFL teams aren’t fooled by his raw numbers. In fact, some really aren’t scared of him at all.
Recently, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler held a survey consisting of over 50 NFL coaches, players, and front-office executives. Though they ultimately agreed to slot him 8th on their list of the top running backs entering the 2022 season, some teams simply don’t view him as a threat. Here’s what one NFL defensive coach had to say about Harris, via ESPN:
"Some voters knocked Harris’ lack of speed or explosion. One NFL defensive coach said, “Not for me. He had 1,200 yards when everyone knew he was going to run it. They knew the Steelers weren’t throwing deep and their offensive line was terrible.”"
This defensive coach wasn’t the only one who felt this way. While Najee was given credit where credit was due (his size and difficulty to bring down at times), they noted that he just didn’t play particularly well when the blocking wasn’t perfect.
Fowler quoted another voter in his article — this time a front-office executive — who pointed to Harris’ big frame to get shots on and his lack of speed that made him a minimal threat when playing the Steelers.
"But one front-office executive said Harris is great in space because he’s a “big person” at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds with broad shoulders and is a “handful in the open field.” Harris’ 62 rushes for a first down ranked third in the NFL. The exec explained the problem lies when a play isn’t blocked up well at the line because defenders get good shots on Harris’ big frame, and he is not sudden or fast enough to evade those hits."
I don’t want to come down too hard on Harris. After all, I think he did pretty much as well as we could have asked a rookie to do in his situation and I expect him to get better. Still, it doesn’t yet seem like he’s a player that teams fear to stack up against.
Where Najee must improve for the Steelers
Obviously, teams don’t have to gameplan for Harris at this point the way they would for a player like Derrick Henry. In addition to having elite size, Henry also has incredible top-end speed to go the distance on any play. That will never be Harris — a player who is very Le’Veon Bell-like in that regard.
However, there is plenty that he could do to make him a bigger threat to teams in the future. For starters, Harris needs to work on his vision. This was an issue more often than fans realize last season. While his blocking was relatively poor most of the time, he did miss some really big holes from time to time — typically when he would look to bounce it outside.
Harris needs to get more comfortable in his skin and utilize his skill set. He needs to understand that, in the NFL, he’s not going to be a guy who wins by bouncing it outside the tackle and racing defenders down the sideline. He needs to practice and explode through the hole. He’s going to win in the trenches.
Najee can also improve in the passing game. While the raw production was respectable, he did drop 7 passes last year and only averaged 5.0 yards per target. If he can improve in the passing game and be a more reliable option, his well-roundedness could make him one of the bigger RB threats in the league.
Najee Harris is a quality football player, but we shouldn’t be putting him on a pedestal just yet. The Steelers running back may not be a big threat to some teams yet, but we are all hoping he will make them eat their words this season.