Najee Harris is a fascinating running back. The Steelers 2021 first round pick has put up back-to-back 1000 yard seasons, but mostly on the back of volume rather than efficiency. In the last two seasons, he has failed to crack 4 yards per carry in either season of his career, meanwhile, Harris’ rushing yards over expectation plummeted in his second season, registering him as one of the worst running backs in the NFL in that metric.
Now, I am a proponent of not just looking at the stats. By looking at those stats, I think it does throw out some obvious context. From week 10 onwards, Harris posted -10 rushing yards over expectation, but the tape is far better than that stat would lead you to believe.
But there are stats, as well as the tape, that show out Harris’ far more impressive success. For one, he had a better success rate on rates in the second half, registering in at around 42.5%, better than the league average. Let’s go over these stats to really paint the picture from the second half of the season compared to the first half when Harris dealt with a foot injury.
His yards per carry climbed nearly a full yard after he took a steel plate out of his shoe related to the injury. It went from 3.2 yards per carry to 4.1 yards per carry. Harris forced more missed tackles, raising his forced missed tackle per carry rate and percentage. His yards after contact rose by over half a yard. Essentially, any efficiency metric you want to look at says the same thing — Najee Harris was a far different player for the Steelers after that steel plate came out. That includes rushing yards over expectation, which jumped sharply.
Another interesting piece of context is the bad offensive line play he’s had in his first two years. That second half last year was the first time that his offensive line ever registered as even league average. According to Graham Barfield of FantasyPts, Harris ranks dead last in the NFL in yards before contact among running backs with more than 250 carries since he entered the league. He averaged only 1.12 yards before contact, which certainly showcases some of the poor offensive line play. However, Harris has forced 0.23 missed tackles per carry, the 7th most in the NFL in that timespaan.
There is one thing that is just going to hold back Harris. That’s his speed. The Steelers got their explosive plays out of the backfield from Jaylen Warren or on jet sweeps. Harris just is not that type of back. As a result, a lot of his efficiency will take a hit. But he has to do better than 3.9 yards per carry in this offense. The Steelers built the team off the backs of the trenches and working it through Harris’ legs.
That lack of speed requires a different style of running that I think Harris is starting to adjust to at the NFL level. With a solid offensive line he does not have to bounce it outside on basic inside zone concepts. He can focus on the one cut and go method. There can be push behind a combo block up to the second level. He is at his best when he makes one cut after pressing the line with his fantastic lateral agility and using his raw size and power in the open field or in short spaces to grind out tough yards.
That’s the type of running we started to see from Harris in the second half of the season. Check that Carolina Panthers game, and that is the blueprint for Harris this season. I don’t think he’ll ever be as efficient as someone like, say, Nick Chubb, but Harris has a reasonable path to crack the code on the efficiency metrics. The tape shows how he can do that, and that he’s already starting to do that. Staying healthy and following that vision are the most important things for him to really break that code in 2023.