The Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 first round draft pick, Najee Harris, made his mark on the Steelers and the NFL in his very first season. Breaking the Steelers rookie rushing record with 1,200 yards exactly, it’s only the second time a rookie has rushed for more than 1,000 yards Steelers history with the other being Franco Harris having 1,055 yards in 1972.
As important as Najee Harris was to the Steelers offense, the question often asked of players as they head into their second season is how much they will grow and improve after having one season, and a full NFL offseason, under their belt.
When it comes to Najee Harris and seeing an improvement in his statistical output for the 2022 season, there is one path to success which would only require Harris to ‘hold par’ in his play and still see an increased output. Additionally, it could even be a factor of getting the same results with less attempts, and presumptive wear and tear on the body, that he had as a rookie.
So let’s take a look at a logical three statistic progression which would help improve Najee Harris‘ statistics for 2022.
Yards Before Contact
Early in the 2021 season, it was chronicled how Najee Harris was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on most of his carries according to Pro Football Focus. As the season went on, those numbers decreased, but they still contributed to the first statistic in this progression: Yards before contact.
As a reminder, Najee Harris finished fourth in the NFL in rushing in 2021. Looking at those top five rushers, Pro Football Reference (PFR) has the following numbers for these players in yards before contact per rushing attempt:
Jonathan Taylor: 2.6 YBC/A
Nick Chubb: 2.5 YBC/A
Joe Mixon: 2.3 YBC/A
Najee Harris: 1.7 YBC/A
Dalvin Cook: 2.7 YBC/A
Obviously one of these things is not like the other. It stands out how Najee Harris did not average even 2 yards per rushing attempt before he was met with contact. While Harris was obviously last in this category among the top five rushers in the NFL, yards after contact put him in the middle of the pack. With Nick Chubb having 3.0 yards after contact and Jonathan Taylor averaging 2.9 yards, Harris was next with 2.2 ahead of both Joe Mixon (1.8 yards) and Dalvin Cook (2.0 yards).
Looking at Najee Harris and his YBC/A per game, the best he saw all season was in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos where he had 3.0 yards before contact per attempt. The only other games where Harris had at least 2.0 yards before contact per attempt were Week 2 against Las Vegas (2.1), Week 10 against the Chargers (2.5), Week 11 against Cincinnati (2.5), and Week 17 against the Browns (2.2). In Week 15 against Tennessee (0.1) and Week 18 against the Ravens (0.8), Harris did not even get an average of 1 yard before contact per attempt.
If the rest of the Steelers offense, whether through improved offensive line play or better offensive scheme, can get Harris anywhere between 0.5 and 1.0 additional yards before contact on average, he would obviously be a much better position. Even adding an additional half yard still would put him the lowest on the list of the top five rushers in 2021 at 2.2 YBC/A. If the offense could improve enough to add an additional yard, then Harris would be at the top of the group at 2.7 YBC/A based on 2021 statistics.
Yards per Carry
After breaking down Najee Harris’ 3.9 yards per carry in 2021 to where 1.7 came before contact and 2.2 were yards after contact, it’s hard to ask Harris to do more than what he was already doing on his own. Getting more yards after contact than before, Harris is working very hard to get the yardage necessary each play. Even if the yards after contact remained the same, if the yards before contact were to be increased as suggested, Najee Harris would be looking at between 4.4 and 4.9 yards per carry. If Harris could reach that mark, he would be right on pace with some of the top Steelers of all time when it came to yards per carry in their second season.
For example, Le’Veon Bell has the most rushing yards in franchise history in a player’s second season with 1,361 yards. During that season, Bell had an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Unfortunately, PFR began their advanced statistics in 2018 and there is not a breakdown of Bell’s yards before contact and yards after contact from 2014.
Ultimately, the statistics of rushing yards for the season is what will stand out the most for a running back. If Najee Harris can get more yards before contact in 2022 while keeping the yards after contact the same, it will add more yards per attempt. For this reason, Najee Harris should see either more rushing yards or a lighter workload.
In 2021, Najee Harris saw 307 rushing attempts which was second in the NFL. If that number gets rounded off to 300, having a yards per carry of 4.4 to 4.9 would have his rushing output for the season be between 1,320 yards and 1,470 yards.
But perhaps more yardage isn’t the desired outcome. If Najee Harris were to rush for 1,200 yards again in 2022, but not needing him to take as many carries was the goal, a reduction of somewhere between 35 and 60 carries on the season based on 4.4 to 4.9 yards per carry could still have Harris giving the same yardage. If the Steelers could get adequate production from other running backs who would potentially be taking a load off of Harris, especially if the increased yards before contact statistic would hold true regardless of the running back, the Steelers would see an overall increase in team rushing yards even if it didn’t come from their leading rusher.
When it comes to Najee Harris and his statistics from 2021, it would be nice to see a second year leap. But having a realistic expectation of where the yardage could come from, particularly from the help of the rest of the offense, may help put expectations for 2022 into perspective. Asking Najee Harris to improve on his record-setting rookie season all on his own is a lot to ask. But seeing an increase in numbers, especially with the help of the rest of the offense, is not out of the question.