When the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to move on from the James Conner era after his four-year stint with the team, they thought they could be getting something special. That might prove to be the case... but not with the running back they expected.
Following Conner's decision to ink a deal with the Arizona Cardinals less than two weeks before the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick in April. Harris was considered by many to be the top running back in the draft class thanks to his impressive career at Alabama.
Fast forward to the start of his third NFL season, and there's another Steelers running back who drawing all of the buzz: Jaylen Warren.
Warren burst onto the scene as an undrafted rookie in 2022. Though he carried the ball just 77 times as a rookie, Warren managed 4.9 yards per carry while reeling in 28 of 33 targets in the receiving game for a respectable 7.6 yards per reception. In comparison, Najee averaged 3.8 yards per carry and 5.6 yards per reception last year.
Advanced analytics were even more convincing that Warren was the better running back in 2022. Here are Harris' and Warren's rankings according to advanced stats by Football Outsiders and PlayerProfiler.
Jaylen Warren will be Steelers best running back in 2023
If the advanced data from last year isn't enough to convince you that Jaylen Warren will be the best running back on the Pittsburgh Steelers this year, then let everything we have witnessed up to this point convince you otherwise.
Though he was impressive as a rookie, Warren was, even more, electrifying during his second NFL training camp this year. This has clearly carried over into the preseason. In his lone carry against the Buffalo Bills, Warren busted off a 62-yard touchdown run and used his burst and second gear to pull away from the safety down the sideline.
To put this into perspective, Najee Harris' career-long run is 37 yards. Remarkably, he has not been able to top this despite having a whopping 579 career carries. Najee's breakaway run rate ranked just 51st in the NFL among qualifying players last year. Considering there are technically only 32 starting running backs in the league, this is not at all where we would like to see him.
The lack of explosive plays from Najee shouldn't be surprising. Dating back to his college days, this was a player who never won thanks to his speed in the open field. Perhaps behind an improved offensive line, this could improve. But theoretically, it should be for Warren as well.
When it comes to traits, Warren simply has Najee beat. He's noticeably more explosive with fantastic ball-carrier vision, fantastic contact balance, and a gear in the second level that Harris doesn't possess. Additionally, Warren is excellent as a receiver, and in terms of blocking ability, Warren has been worlds better so far.
Obviously, there's a chance that Najee can still turn things around and look more like the first-round player that Pittsburgh thought they were signing up for. However, based on everything we have seen since the beginning of last year, there's overwhelming evidence at this point to suggest that Jaylen Warren will be the best running back on the Steelers in 2023. It might just take some time for the coaching staff to recognize this.