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Najee Harris Changes Tune on Workload Concerns: ‘There Should Be a Second Back’

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Najee Harris Pittsburgh Steelers

UNITY TWP., Pa. — After leading the league in touches last season with 381, there have been a lot of discussions about decreasing Najee Harris’ workload in 2022. Mike Tomlin has a track record of running the wheels off his running backs — Willie Parker and Le’Veon Bell — so the concern is valid.

Harris appeared on The Rich Eisen Show last Wednesday, and the Alabama product expressed no worries about being the Steelers’ bell cow running back. In fact, he welcomes carrying the load.

“I’ll get 500 (touches), “Harris responded. “Listen, I didn’t have an issue with it. It was the media who had an issue with it. I told them every game, ‘If this is the way we’re winning, I can carry the load.’ I train to carry loads. It’s not something that I haven’t done before. I did it in college, high school, NFL. For me to get that much carries, I was like, man, is we winning games? It was a long streak where someone was saying if I have 25 carries, then we’re undefeated. So OK, this is our identity right here. Let’s keep this going on, let’s keep this going. Listen, if I get 500 carries, as long as we’re winning, it doesn’t really matter.”

Harris kind of changed his tune almost a week later, however, as he told reporters at Saint Vincent College on Tuesday that they have to be smart about his workload. He also acknowledged the signing of veteran running back Jeremy McNichols, which occurred earlier that morning.

“I think there should be a second back,” Harris said. “And just being smart. There were some plays where, if you watch my film, where I get somewhat tired, and those aren’t my best plays. We have a good understanding of what to prepare for this year. There is a new back. We’re just trying to find someone else in the room.”

Harris’ 381 touches last season were the most by a rookie since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001. Harris’ snap share was also 85% last year, which is a ridiculously high number. The Steelers desperately need a running back who can take the load off Harris when he needs a breather, and McNichols could be that guy. In 31 career games, McNichols has rushed for 364 yards and one touchdown, along with 40 receptions for 295 yards and one touchdown. In 2021, with the Titans, McNichols rushed for 156 yards on 41 carries (3.8 average) and had 28 receptions for 240 yards (8.6 average) and a touchdown.

Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland are the two other options for the RB2 role. Snell has had his moments of success, but he’s mostly been mediocre during his three seasons with the Steelers. Speed has been his biggest issue. And McFarland hasn’t really shown much in his two years with the team. To be fair, though, he was hampered by an MCL injury last year.

The Steelers offensive line was one of the worst in the league last year, but Harris still managed to rack up 1,200 yards rushing on 307 carries (3.9 average) and seven touchdowns. Harris also had 74 receptions for 467 yards (6.3 average) and three touchdowns. In total, Harris had an impressive 1,667 yards of offense in his rookie campaign, which was good enough to make the Pro Bowl as an alternate.

Given the Steelers’ running back depth, Tomlin having a history of riding with his top running back, and the new quarterback being either Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett, it wouldn’t be surprising if Harris has well over 400 touches in 2022, despite the talk of limiting his workload.

Would he reach 500, though? That would be tough to imagine, and probably not feasible, especially in today’s game. Former Buccaneers running back James Wilder has the NFL single-season record for touches with 492, which was set in 1984. Larry Johnson posted 416 carries with the Chiefs in 2006, which is the NFL single-season record for carries.

Nick Farabaugh contributed reporting.

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