Najee Harris’ struggles and the risks of the 1st round running back

Running Back Breece Hall #20 of the New York Jets. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Running Back Breece Hall #20 of the New York Jets. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the team had hoped the former Alabama standout would solidify the running game. Instead, the running attack has been largely stagnant and Najee Harris’ struggles appear to be a cause for concern in the Steel City. While it would be unfair to pin all of the blame on Harris, teams should use caution before investing a high pick in a first round running back.

Najee Harris’ Struggles

Few things are as exciting in the NFL as watching a running back break off a big run. From Derrick Henry bulldozing would-be tacklers to Marshawn Lynch’s famous “Beast Quake”, it’s easy for fans and teams alike to become enamored with the running back position. Perhaps trying to replicate the success the team had with Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers found themselves taking Najee Harris with the 24th pick in 2021.

Since he was drafted, Harris has faced little competition in becoming the team’s featured back and one of the very few “bell-cows” in the NFL. On the surface, Harris’ numbers looked great his rookie season. He finished 4th in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,200 while adding 7 scores. However, under the surface, cracks were starting to form and Najee Harris’ struggles were starting.

The Concerns

Despite his impressive rushing total, it took Harris 307 carries leading to a pedestrian 3.9 yards per attempt, tying him for 40th in the NFL. Furthermore, he tied for 45th in rushing yards before contact per attempt, meaning that while Harris was running for a lot of yards, over half were coming after he was hit.

So far in his second season, it appears that the wheels have started falling off for Harris. This season, he has only run for 264 yards through the first 6 weeks, averaging 3.2 yards per attempt leaving him in 50th behind backs like Melvin Gordon and Antonio Gibson. Meanwhile, he has once again struggled to gain yards before contact, this time ranking tied for 43rd while averaging only 1.9 yards per attempt before contact.

With Pittsburgh ranking towards the bottom of the NFL for total offenses and with inconsistent quarterback play, opposing teams have had the ability to “stack the box” leading to a large portion of Najee Harris’ struggles. While some of the blame has been placed at the feet of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

The Broken Philosophy

When looking into Najee Harris’ struggles, it becomes evident that the team has simply not placed him in a position to succeed. For starters, it is extremely difficult for a running back to break off a big run if they are being hit in the backfield or near the line of scrimmage. While the team did improve their offensive line with the additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels, the unit as a whole still ranks in the lower tier of offensive lines.

For the most part, Harris is actually doing a decent job breaking tackles as most of his yards are coming after contact. But with a more porous offensive line, Harris is taking quite a few hits.

Long gone are the days of an offensive line anchored by the likes of David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. In fact, the Steelers haven’t utilized a first round pick in an offensive lineman since picking DeCastro 24th in 2012.

The Risks of the First Round Running Back

While it’s easy to pick on Najee Harris’s struggles, it hasn’t been easy on first round running backs in quite some time. Since the 2012 draft, 14 running backs have been taken in the first round. Of those backs, only Doug Martin, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot and Christian McCaffrey signed a second contract with the team that drafted them. For Martin and Gurley, both were released after two-years on the second contract.

Meanwhile, of the top-10 running backs in total rushing yards last season, only Harris and Elliott were drafted in the first round. With teams finding talented ball carriers in the later rounds, using a premium pick on a running back is likely not the best value for the pick.

For the Steelers, they likely would have been better targeting a different position in 2021 or improving the offensive line prior to drafting Najee Harris. With a better line in place, he should be able to get back to what made him such a dynamic runner in the Alabama offense and Najee Harris’ struggles likely wouldn’t have happened.

With talented running backs likely including Bijan Robinson, Devon Achane, Zach Evans and others, teams will once again have to decide if their offensive line is in a position to allow that factor back to be successful.