The Najee Harris hype-train, at least for me, was on full throttle ever since before the draft. Harris was one of the top running back prospects coming into the draft and for very good reason. Not only was Najee Harris 5th in the Heisman voting, but Harris totaled nearly 3,000 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns over his final two seasons in Alabama. Now after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers 24th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, he’s in a position to have a substantial role in the Steelers offense right out of the gate.
Like everything else, some naysayers believe that Najee Harris could bust this season. I can understand the skepticism. Nothing in the NFL is set in stone. Any number of things could happen that could alter the path that Najee Harris could have to a positive season as a rookie. However, let’s look at the situation Harris is in with the Steelers. Harris has one of the better opportunities to ball out this season. After not bringing back now Cardinals running back James Conner, the Steelers needed a dominant ball carrier. The guys on the roster like Anthony McFarland Jr. and Benny Snell weren’t going to cut it.
We also know that Head Coach Mike Tomlin isn’t prone to using running back by committees. Don’t believe me? In the final season of Le’Veon Bell’s career as a Steeler in 2017, Bell totaled 427 touches (rushing and targets combined) that year. The next back that would eventually replace him was James Conner… who had just 33 total touches. The following season, Conner would take the reigns and his total touches jumped to 286 touches. Jaylen Samuels was the backup back and in the same season… just 85 touches.
Looking at the current Steelers roster, there isn’t a back currently on the team that can or will challenge Najee Harris for a major slice of the workload this season. The Steelers didn’t use a first-round pick on Alabama running back just so that they could throw him into a timeshare. And thank goodness they aren’t thinking that way. Another obstacle that may have people concerned is the offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow.
First, let’s talk about Ben’s elbow for a second. Roethlisberger is no spring chicken. He’s 39 years old and looked like he couldn’t push the ball downfield as he used to after returning from an elbow injury that knocked him out of the 2019 season and had us looking for backups Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to keep the Steelers pass-catchers fantasy relevant. I’m sorry for reminding you of that travesty.
While I don’t expect Big Ben to keep chucking it around like he did last season, totaling 608 passing attempts, I do expect the Steelers to get the ball out of Ben’s hands faster. Hitting shorter, quicker passes as well as running the ball more than they did last season will help Roethlisberger stay on the field more and not burden his arm. In 2020, the Steelers QB managed just 6.2 YPA. That put him at the bottom of the league among QBs at 32nd overall per Playerprofiler.com. The Steelers averaged around 252 yards passing a game (16th overall) too so that won’t be the way they want to proceed heading into the new year.
The offensive line has some new, younger faces too. Most recently, the Steelers released Right Guard David DeCastro and signed former Chargers lineman Trai Turner to replace him. The Steelers also added lineman help during the 2021 Draft by selecting Illinois OG Kendrick Green. With the Steeler’s o-line getting younger this season, working as a unit will be a priority with the Steelers being in a division full of tough defenses they’ll have to face again. The Steelers need the o-line and the run game to help them out this season. ProFootball Focus has the Steelers offensive line ranked 29th heading into the 2021 season and with the run-game floundering, averaging 84 yards a game last season (ranking 32nd), it should be the coaches’ focus to have these two aspects of the Steelers offense back up and running.
Najee Harris’s fantasy draft is currently sitting him in the 2nd round at the 2.08 in PPR formats. While to some that might feel like a reach but based on what we’ve seen out of the Steelers’ offense when it comes to the lead back, they will get the work. Also consider that the longer you go in the draft, the less likely you are to get a bell-cow back. Harris’ fantasy value arc may even push him into the first round at the pace it’s going. Even though you may feel like this is a reach, especially for a rookie, you should feel comfortable in knowing that the amount of work he will get will place him inside the top 10 among running backs alone with the production sure to follow.