I think I was looking forward to the NFL debut of Najee Harris, the Steelers 2021 first-round pick, more than any rookie in recent memory.
I don’t know what it is about a rookie running back, but when he arrives under the tree wrapped in first-round paper, he just seems like a shinier new toy than the rest. That’s how I felt about Harris. He was shinier than Devin Bush. He was shinier than T.J. Watt. Heck, he even seemed shinier than Ben Roethlisberger. Perhaps that’s because there’s often some assembly required with rookie passers. You have to read the directions with quarterbacks. You have to buy special tools. The specific type of battery you need is often difficult to find.
None of that is the case with a rookie running back. You can usually just take that sucker out of the box and head for the backyard.
Those were my feelings about Harris for months leading up to Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game against the Cowboys.
But that all changed in the days before Harris was set to make his professional football debut. I don’t know what it was, but much like a skydiver or stand-up comedian, I got stage fright in the 11th hour and didn’t want Pittsburgh to play Harris at all.
Crazy, right? Harris is a rookie. He needs preseason work. He needs to experience in-stadium action, the bright lights, those feelings of everything being too fast for him, etc., etc.
I get all of that, but I think it was pretty obvious the second Harris’ name was called by commissioner Roger Goodell way back on the evening of April 29 that he was already the Steelers’ top running back.
Would Harris become an All-Pro or even extremely productive? That all remained to be seen, but there was no doubt that he already belonged at the top of the depth chart.
Nothing has changed since then. In fact, the news coming out of training camp regarding Harris’ work ethic and performance indicates that he’s clearly separated himself from the rest of the pack.
That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, though, right? As I said earlier, very little assembly is required with a rookie running back, and the more expensive he is, the better he’s expected to perform.
This is why I’m now suddenly scared of Harris getting hurt in the preseason. I think he’s the most important offensive rookie for the Steelers since they picked center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Much like Harris, Pouncey was clearly the Steelers’ best offensive lineman the moment he set foot in Pittsburgh and would go on to play a pivotal role in transitioning the offensive line from “Who’s laughing now?” to “Who’s gonna get by us?”
The Steelers certainly have big plans for Harris in 2021. He may have to be a three-down back in the mold of a Le’Veon Bell, someone the offense flows through week-in and week-out.
It’s never going to be Benny Snell, 2019’s version of the downhill running back with the charismatic personality that people couldn’t wait to see in action. He’s not that guy anymore. As for Anthony McFarland, the speedy fourth-round pick in 2020? I just want him to get out of neutral and stop spinning his wheels whenever he actually touches the ball.
And I don’t even want to think about having to talk myself into believing in Kalen Ballage as a bell-cow alternative to an injured Harris.
What’s the solution for Harris’ workload over the final three preseason games? For starters, I wouldn’t play him in the finale against Carolina. I’d treat him like the workhorse he’s going to be during the regular season make him stand around in street clothes. As far as the next two games, I’d go with the same workload Pittsburgh utilized against the Cowboys: a half-dozen carries and call it a night.
You might say that a running back can suffer a serious injury on any play. True, but the less I mouth off to total strangers out in public, the less chance there is of someone popping me in the mouth.
Same holds true for carries for running back.
The Steelers need Najee Harris to be healthy for the regular season more than they’ve needed that from any rookie for quite some time. More importantly, they need him to help change the face of their offense.
As for the bright lights? Harris played at Alabama. I’m sure he won’t need shades once the regular season starts.