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Steelers All 90: Can New Offensive Identity Help Najee Harris Breakout Season?

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Steelers RB Najee Harris

Drafting a running back in the first round is basically frowned upon in the NFL, but the Pittsburgh Steelers could not pass up on the chance to take Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. After two seasons with the team, the perception of Harris differs nationally from what it is locally.

Harris has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and even hauled in over 70 passes as a rookie but without a season of averaging over four yards per carry, some say Harris is “overvalued.”

Whatever the “experts” have to say, the Steelers are content with Harris and his production. Harris is expecting to have a good year and said that it is possible that he becomes a “queen” type of player that can be slotted in at different positions in 2023 but said it is ultimately up to Matt Canada and the other coaches to scheme him into open space.

“I anticipate coach Canada to do what [he] can to get me the ball in space, to put me in the best positions possible,” Harris said. “That being said, [I can be that type of player] but I am just a player so I stay in my position and place and I let the coaches do what they got to do.”

Harris stated that he can see a clear difference in the offense this year and said that the late-season success in 2022 was because of the team finding its identity. He said that due to them finding their identity, he believes that the offense will be improved in 2023.

“I feel like we’ve found our identity,” Harris said. “Early on [last year], we didn’t know what we were. There was a lot of stuff going on, especially at the quarterback position.”

Once Kenny Pickett took over at quarterback, the offense began to form their identity and the team went 7-2 down the stretch. With their newly-found personality and the additions to the offensive line, Harris expects the Steelers to get back to playing “Steeler football.”

“That’s what we do,” Harris said. “We run the ball. We have a good defense. We’ve got good players on the outside so we try to get them the ball in space.”

With the emergence of Jaylen Warren last season and the overhaul of the offensive line unit, Harris is in line to produce his first season averaging four yards per carry in 2023. Nonetheless, the Steelers will enter the 2023 season with its two-headed monster at the running back position, with Harris leading the charge.

22 • Najee Harris, Running Back, Alabama
6-foot-1, 232 pounds, 25 years old, 3rd Season

Acquired: The Steelers drafted Harris with the 24th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft after a stellar career at the University of Alabama.

Last YearHarris opened the season without feeling 100% in terms of his health as he injured his foot in the team’s third preseason game. Regardless, Harris powered through and did not miss any games due to the injury but it did noticeably affect his play. After the team’s Week 9 bye, Harris looked like a different running back. In Week 11, Harris rushed for 99 yards, his highest total to that point, against the New Orleans Saints. The following week, Harris posted 90 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals. He recorded a season-high 111 rushing yards in the team’s Week 17 game against the Baltimore Ravens when he also caught the game-winning touchdown from Kenny Pickett.

In 2022, Harris put up 272 carries for 1,034 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He added 41 catches for 229 yards and three receiving touchdowns.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and RB Najee Harris

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) and coach Mike Tomlin walk off the field following an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

CareerThe Steelers drafted Harris in the first round of the 2021 Draft after the team decided to move on from James Connor. Harris played his first NFL season as Ben Roethlisberger played his last. The two created a chemistry that resembled the one Roethlisberger had with Le’Veon Bell. Harris tallied a career-high 307 rushing attempts for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns. He also was a staple in the passing attack as he hauled in 74 receptions for 467 yards and three receiving touchdowns.

Harris scored his first career NFL touchdown in the team’s Week 4 game against the Green Bay Packers. In that game, Harris notched 15 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown. He followed that up by posting his first-career 100-yard rushing game the next week against the Denver Broncos. In Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns, Harris posted a career-high 188 rushing yards on 28 carries. He was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2021.

In total, Harris has rushed for 2,234 yards and 14 touchdowns while adding another six touchdowns through the air. He has started all 34 games since entering the league in 2021.

najee-harris-steelers-hurdle-bengals-jessie-bates

Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) hurdles Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates (30) in a game at Acrisure Stadium.

YearGPGSCarriesYardsAVGRush TDsReceptionsRec. YardsRec. TDs
202117173071,2003.97744673
202217172721,0343.87412293

 

College: Harris starred as a running back at Antioch High School in California and scored 98 total touchdowns before committing to the University of Alabama as a five-star recruit. As a freshman, Harris appeared in 14 games but played in a limited role due to a couple of other future NFL players being in front of him on the depth chart. Regardless, Harris still tallied 61 carries for 370 yards and three touchdowns. He also added six receptions for 45 yards.

Harris saw his role expand in his sophomore season but still entered the season as the third running back on the roster. By the end 0f the season, Harris managed to finish with the second-most rushing yards. He finished the season with 117 carries for 783 yards and four touchdowns.

In 2019, Harris assumed the full-time starting running back for the Crimson Tide and had a breakout season. He recorded 209 carries for 1,224 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Through the air, Harris hauled in 27 receptions for 304 yards and seven receiving touchdowns. Following the season, Harris was named All-SEC Second Team by the Associated Press and the conference’s coaches.

Harris decided to go back to school for his senior season and became one of the most storied players in Alabama history. In the 2020 season, Harris carried a career-high 251 times for 1,466 yards and an FBS-leading 26 touchdowns. He also added 43 receptions for 425 yards and four receiving touchdowns. In addition to leading the NCAA in rushing touchdowns, he also led the NCAA in total scrimmage yards with 1,891 yards. Following the season, Harris was named a Unanimous All-American and earned All-SEC First Team honors, while winning the Doak Walker Award.

In total, Harris finished his collegiate career as the school’s all-time leader for total career touchdowns (57), rushing touchdowns (46), and career rushing yards (3,843), while finishing second in career scrimmage yards (4,624).

YearGPCarriesRush YardsRush TDsReceptionsRec. YardsRec. TDs
2017146137036450
2018151177834470
2019132091,22413273047
2020132511,46626434254

Salary cap and future: Harris is entering the third year of his standard four-year rookie contract. He will cost $3.56 million against the Steelers’ 2023 cap space. Of that $3.56 million, he is owed $1.85 million in base salary and $1.71 million in a prorated bonus.

Harris is signed with the team through the end of the 2024 season but the team will be able to pick up a fifth-year option for the 2025 season due to him being a first-round pick. Harris is set to become an unrestricted free agent following either the 2024 or 2025 season.

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