Last season the Pittsburgh Steelers struggled to get anything going in the running game. The hope is that drafting Alabama’s Najee Harris in the first round will lead to a less predictive offense.
Showing immense talent in college, how can Harris translate his success to the NFL?
1. Najee Harris is built like The Hulk
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Najee Harris is a big dude for a running back. Early in his rookie season, Harris may look more like Bruce Banner, to begin with, but as he gains experience, fans might see Banner turn into The Incredible Hulk. You won’t like Harris when he’s angry and neither will the opposing defense.
Just like Marvel’s superheroes, Harris has incredible abilities. Drawing comparisons to Derrick Henry for many reasons including his running style and stature, Harris runs with power and finesse. Give Harris 20 touches per game and watch him wear out the defense.
While Steelers fans may already be partial to another Hulk on their team in the form of right tackle Zach Banner, Harris may quickly steal the show.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game relies on Najee Harris
With last season’s starting running back James Conner signing with the Arizona Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed to bring in a new starter. Finishing with the fewest rushing yards in the NFL in 2020, something had to change in Pittsburgh. After selecting the former Bama back 24th overall in the first round of the draft, Najee Harris comes with high expectations.
Outside of Harris, the Steelers didn’t do anything to address their running game personnel-wise. The offensive line has been revamped, but that has more to do with retiring players and a tight salary cap situation than improving up front.
With that, the job is Harris’ to lose. Without a legitimate backup who has proven himself at the NFL level, Harris is expected to have a long leash as a workhorse rookie.
3. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers brand of football should present plenty of opportunities
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is known for leading a strong defense in Pittsburgh. By forcing turnovers and quick three-and-outs, the Steelers’ offense gets plenty of chances to score. Sometimes even having the benefit of starting with great field position.
Once in the red zone, what better option does this offense have, than handing the ball to Najee Harris to bulldoze defenders on the way to the goal line? Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron are big targets, but when just a few inches are needed, everyone in the stadium knows the ball will go to Harris.
With as stout of a defense the Steelers have, Harris can also pick up extra carries at the end of games, running out the clock. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger will still be throwing the ball 30-plus times per game, but new offensive coordinator Matt Canada will try to establish the run more after last season’s struggles. Although Conner only averaged nearly 16 touches per game last season, a big part of that could be due to how ineffective he was.
Coming out of college, Conner ran a 4.65 40-yard dash. With limited top-end speed, Conner wasn’t a huge threat to break off big chunks of yardage. This lack of quickness helped defenses focus on stopping the Steelers’ passing game, without having to worry about giving up a big play on the ground. Harris ran a 4.45 at his pro day, which should strike more fear on game days.
Look for the Steelers to find more of a balance between Big Ben throwing it 40-plus times per game and seeing what their new backfield weapon can do. If the Steelers continue to be so pass-dependent, having Harris tire out the defense after they’ve spent most snaps running all over the field in pass coverage, could be a strong recipe for success.
4. Najee Harris learned from several great RBs at Alabama
A popular player comparison for Najee Harris is Derrick Henry. While they both wear the same No. 22 jersey, they also both went to Alabama. Committing to one of the most accomplished schools in recent time, Harris mostly sat behind backs Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs his first two seasons. It wasn’t until his junior year that Najee Harris became a starter.
Alabama alumni have had great success recently transitioning to the NFL level. From Derrick Henry to the Las Vegas Raiders’ pairing of Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake, the Crimson Tide knows how to scout and develop running backs. Though King Henry holds the crown, if Harris can help the Steelers ground game get back on track, his first-round selection will look like a steal.
After spending some time learning from Jacobs and Damien Harris, Najee dominated playing against the best players in college. With the way he’s built, Harris should have no issues continuing his success at the pro level.
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5. The hype surrounding Najee Harris is real
While Wikipedia may not have had his correct middle name listed, fans will learn Najee Harris’ name in no time. Rated by Rivals as the No. 1 recruit in his 2017 high school class, Harris has long been on the radar of NFL scouts.
Despite limited playing time early in his college days, Harris finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and touchdowns. Not bad, considering the legendary history of the Crimson Tide.
While Derrick Henry couldn’t parlay his hype into becoming a first-round pick, Harris did. With more and more teams seemingly hesitant to select a running back in the first round, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert didn’t flinch. Henry may have paved the way for big backs to regain value, but it will be up to Harris to live up to the massive expectations set before him.
Some in Pittsburgh say Harris is the best back the city has seen since Le’Veon Bell, but the top brass may be hoping for more of a Jerome Bettis-like impact from the highly-touted prospect. If Najee Harris can land somewhere in between the two talented backs, Pittsburgh will have hit the jackpot in the first round.