Why Steelers running back Jaylen Warren is outperforming Najee Harris

Jaylen Warren #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is tackled by AJ Epenesa #57 of the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)
Jaylen Warren #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is tackled by AJ Epenesa #57 of the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images) /

Najee Harris has not made the second-year leap we all hoped for. Is the Steelers former first-round pick getting outplayed by an undrafted rookie?

Anyone who has followed the Pittsburgh Steelers closely since the start of the season knows that Najee Harris has not taken the step forward in his second season that we would have liked to see. As a rookie, Harris was remarkably tough to bring down and while he led the NFL in total touches (381) he wasn’t very efficient with his looks.

This year, despite better-than-expected play from Pittsburgh’s offensive line, Najee’s efficiency has dipped even worse. Many think this is attributed to the Lisfranc foot injury he suffered early in training camp. Though this could still be hampering him, I’m not so convinced the team would be deploying him if the injury was still a big issue at this point.

Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Harris’s performance has been unspectacular — so much so, in fact, that he’s getting outplayed by an undrafted rookie from the Big 12.

This is by no means a knock on Jaylen Warren. The former Oklahoma State running back has been thoroughly impressive so far in his first NFL season. In fact, Warren’s performance — combined with the less-than-stellar play of Najee Harris — has actually raised some controversy among Steelers fans as to which running back has been better and who should see more playing time.

Even if you haven’t looked up their stats, you probably can imagine that Warren is averaging more yards per carry and more yards per reception than Najee this year. But what do the advanced stats say? According to statistics from Football Outsiders and PlayerProfiler, Warren has been better than Harris in nearly every facet of the game this year:

Clearly, the numbers indicate that Jaylen Warren has been the better football player entering Week 6. While their grades are close, Pro Football Focus would agree. But let’s add some context and break this down even further.

Harris has been put in tougher situations, but Warren is still better for Steelers

Statistically, Warren has obviously been more efficient — nearly every number shows that (advanced stat or otherwise). However, I do want to be fair to Najee Harris here and add the needed context.

Though I’m certainly not looking for a cop-out when it comes to his unspectacular performance, Harris has been put in tougher situations so far. He’s running on early downs and obvious running plays. While he hasn’t necessarily seen a higher percentage of stacked boxes, defenders seem to be quick to recognize the play and come barreling downhill to make the tackle near the line of scrimmage.

On the other hand, Warren has a higher percentage of runs on draws and late in football games, when it’s less predictable as to what the Steelers will do. Perhaps some of his success could be attributed to this and going against defenses that are worn down later in games.

However, something that doesn’t change with these two players is the offensive line. Both Harris and Warren are running behind the same group of five and are given similar circumstances. What becomes increasingly clear to me on film is that Warren just seems to be quicker and faster with arguably better vision. He doesn’t hesitate; he simply hits the hole and goes. The undrafted rookie has also displayed excellent contact balance and he packs a punch in pass protection.

Harris, meanwhile, looks a bit plodding from the backfield. When there is a crease, he doesn’t seem to accelerate through the hole as quickly, and he’s not throwing defenders off of him like he was as a rookie. After watching the all-22 film, Najee’s vision has also come into question at times, as he just doesn’t seem to be seeing things as quickly as Warren.

Steelers player tier rankings: Najee Harris slides down the list. light. Related Story

Najee Harris could bounce back after a sluggish start, but I think the first five weeks of the season have taught us that Jaylen Warren needs to see a bigger market share of the Steelers offense moving forward. Harris isn’t losing his job, but Mike Tomlin seems to suggest that we could see the snaps and touches shift a bit in the coming weeks.