Why critics have no right to call Steelers RB Najee Harris a 'bust' entering 2023

Steelers, Najee Harris
Steelers, Najee Harris / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

Najee Harris has been placed on one of the highest pedestals attainable in the Steelers spotlight by the franchise itself, which should be expected when talking about a first-round pick. There are still some out there that are hesitant to embrace that image, though.

Despite him only being halfway through his second season in the NFL, Harris received criticism from pundits far and wide, with the majority of said criticism stemming from a then-lackluster statistical impact. For some, it got bad enough to where they either humored the idea of Harris being a bust or just flat-out called him one. I have one simple question for each of those individuals: Why?

Now, before I completely go off on the haters, I feel it is appropriate to recognize that I am never eager to declare that a player is a “bust” without considering multiple factors beforehand, the largest of which being the amount of time he’s had in the league.

With Harris not even having two whole seasons under his belt at the time, and playing for a team that is notorious for its offensive line issues, his being talked about in such a discouraging way would be unacceptable to me regardless of how good or bad his stats were looking. However, what pushes me over the edge is just how ignorant the statistical perspective still managed to be.

First of all, just because a player is looking rough for part of a season doesn’t mean he’s going to finish it on that same note (this is a point that doesn’t have to be stressed, as Harris was luckily able to prove it himself). Secondly, it would be foolish to pretend that Harris is the first Steelers running back to ever have a remotely questionable start to his career.

Simply put, when analyzing Harris’ stats for how they look today, they greatly compare to those of a former Pittsburgh RB: Le’Veon Bell.

Where do Bell’s Steelers stats come into the picture?

Bell played for the Steelers from 2013 to 2018, and he asserted himself as an elite back in that span, scoring 42 total touchdowns and hitting 5,336 rushing yards (that left him an average of just over 4.3 yards per carry).

But hold on a minute, those are numbers that Bell amassed after five seasons, not two; it wouldn’t be fair to hold Harris up to those. So let’s even the playing field: How hot was Bell looking at the end of his sophomore stretch?

After his second year in the black and yellow, Bell’s touchdown count wasn’t 42, but 19. Not only that, but his rushing yards sat at just 2,221, which resulted in an ever-so-slightly-smaller average of 4.2 yards per carry. Now here's the kicker—a couple of Harris’ two-year stats go beyond being merely comparable to Bell’s, but are actually superior to Bell’s.

Upon taking a peek at Harris’ numbers, we can see that he currently has a total of 20 touchdowns to his name—one more than Bell. As for rushing yards, he holds 2,234—13 more than Bell. The nod still goes to Bell in regards to YPC by a slim margin of 0.3, but considering how that is easily the least important category of the three in question, I’m willing to swallow it.

And before one of the more persistent Najee-doubters comes forward to preach about it, let the record show that I am not afraid to acknowledge Bell’s hefty advantage in both receiving yards and yards per catch (1,253 and 9.8 to Harris’ 696 and 6.1). Just know that if we are going to acknowledge those, we also have to acknowledge the fact that Harris still had double the receiving touchdowns. That little detail makes the yardage gap seem far less relevant, doesn’t it?


I understand that many have likely halted their Najee Harris slander since he finished last season as he did, but his being declared a “bust” for nothing more than a slow start to his second year was asinine from the jump. Especially if Le’Veon Bell holds a remotely dear place in any of their hearts, I’d recommend a change in attitude to all the critics before the 2023-24 stretch gets underway.