Najee Harris led the NFL in touches as a rookie. Here’s why history tells us that the Pittsburgh Steelers top running back isn’t going to last very long.
381. That’s how many times Najee Harris toted the rock during his rookie season in 2021. Not only did the Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick lead the NFL in touches last season, but he was also tied for the 7th-largest single-season workload since 2012, via Pro Football Reference.
Historically, this much wear and tear really isn’t a good sign when it comes to longevity at the running back position. While some rare workhorse running backs can defy the odds and last a very long time in the NFL, most fizzle out fast.
Recently, I took a look at some former bell-cow backs who once carried the load for their team. These were all big, physical running backs who have all retired within the past decade. What I found is that not one name on this list that includes Pro Bowl and All-Pro runners made it to age 30 in their NFL careers:
The biggest takeaway, however, is that most of these workhorse running backs don’t have a single ‘impact’ season beyond age 26. Not surprisingly, 26 is considered ‘running back shelf life,’ and there is a sharp downward trend in efficiency for backs who manage to stick around in the league after this point.
This evidence is not good news for a player like Najee Harris. Not only does the big running back have a fair amount of tread already off the tires, but he will already be 25 years old shortly after his second season in 2022.
Like everything, there are exceptions to this. Other running backs who have retired within the past decade have had longer more successful careers. Take LeSean McCoy, for example. McCoy’s career lasted all the way until his age-32 season and his final impact year came at age 29. However, McCoy also had a different running style than most other ‘workhorse’ running backs as he relied on speed and quickness.
On the other hand, Najee fits a profile much more similar to former Steelers RB, Le’Veon Bell, and neither running back was overly fast to begin their careers.
Sadly, massive workloads take a heavy toll on even the biggest and toughest running backs. Counting his final two seasons at Alabama, Harris now has a whopping 911 touches over the past three seasons. This is more than Chris Carson had in his entire career and nearly as much as Eddie Lacy had — who was completely washed by age 25.
Unless Najee Harris finds the Fountain of Youth, there’s really no reason to expect that his body is going to hold up better than the names on this list. He might look young and fresh now, but if the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t find a way to ease his workload, his body is going to break down fast.