Okay, so it's a little obvious to talk about how big a role a first round draft pick will have. You hope he will be an instant star, but then there's always also the potential that he's a bust. I think Harris is a particularly good example of this, though, that I wanted to talk about a bit because of it. The whole "never draft a RB in the first round" thing that has emerged this year heightens the sense of drama with Harris. Did the Steelers reach into the first round for a merely average RB who will only be as good as his blocking? Or did the Steelers steal the top RB in the draft who fell because RB's aren't popular and an an ankle injury prevented him from working out?
First of all, don't let this "no RB in the first round" thing blind you to the fact that an elite RB is an absolute game changer. Calvin Johnson set the record for the most yards from scrimmage by a WR at 1,964. That puts him 79th overall. There are actually 10 active RB's who have put up more yards from scrimmage than any WR in history. That feat has been accomplished by Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Derrick Henry, and Todd Gurley. McCaffrey and Elliott have done it twice, and Bell missed a repeat performance by just 18 yards (which he would've gotten if he hadn't been sat for a meaningless week 17 matchup). Part of the reason RB's are so much more productive is because it's easier to get them touches; a good RB can easily get 300 touches where a WR is carrying a heavy workload if he gets even a 100. It's not just easier to get the ball to RB's via handoff as opposed to having to put the ball in the air for a WR, RB's also just have more flexibility. A RB who can run over a safety, run away from a LB, and pickup a blitzer to give his QB to make a big play downfield against an exposed secondary is actually as much or more of a matchup nightmare than any TE. A top RB can straight up carry an offense on his shoulders.
The question is, whether Harris is that kind of RB or not. Right after the draft, it seemed like every one was saying "yeah, he's good but he's a RB so it's basically a wasted pick." I disagree with that. At the same time, now it seems like everyone is saying "really, the only question is whether or not he'll break Franco's rookie records and win OROY while he's completely revitalizing our rushing game." It seems like this is a little bit of offseason over-optimism. Just last year, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the first RB taken at 32nd overall, falling in a near-perfect situation in KC, and he posted just 803 rush yards on the year (4.4 average) and 297 receiving yards - hardly earth shattering. Rashaad Penny and Sony Michel, drafted in the similar range (though not first at their position) have severely underwhelmed as well.
I think the truth is probably where it typically is, somewhere in between. I tend to believe Harris is the real deal. It's hard to evaluate him with the wide open running lanes he typically had and no speed and agility numbers to refer to, but there are a few good indicators. He's not overly fast or quick, but he has solid change of direction and the power to fall forward even when solidly hit and run through arm tackles without breaking stride. I think it's also noteworthy that in 2018 he was part of a committee with Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris. Harris averaged a whopping 6.7 yards per carry on 117 attempts, well overshadowing Damien Harris' 5.8 and Jacobs' 5.3. Jacobs (who interestingly was also drafted 24th overall) put up 1,100 rush yards as a rookie, so the fact that Najee was much more successful behind the same OL in college bodes well. Harris' work ethic also promises well for success. Finally, Penny and Michel aside, there aren't many examples of first RB's who didn't turn out to be pretty good, at least eventually. All that of course is mitigated somewhat, though, by the fact that the Steelers OL has a lot of question marks and Harris probably won't have an ideal situation for success. So on the whole, I think it's definitely too early to celebrate Harris' rookie of the year award, but I do think that James Conner is probably his realistic floor and his ceiling is definitely high enough to merit his draft position.