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Najee Harris is capable of meeting high expectations in 2023

The Alabama product faces pressure in his third year, but should be able to live up to it.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pittsburgh Steelers made a call to the Bay Area during the 2021 NFL Draft, fans and the franchise alike believed that the team had landed a generational talent at running back.

Two years into Harris’ NFL career, though, the results have been mixed.

On one hand, Harris has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in each of his two professional seasons, becoming the first Pittsburgh RB to accomplish that feat since Le’Veon Bell in 2014-15. Moreover, Harris has proven incredibly durable, having not missed a game as a Steeler. On top of that, he has just three fumbles in 34 games, and has already notched a Pro Bowl appearance.

On the other, Harris has not been incredibly efficient, with a career 3.9 yards per attempt mark. The advanced statistics bolster that claim, with Harris ranking dead last in Next Gen Stats’ rushing yards over expected (RYOE) mark in 2022. Further, the Alabama product has surpassed 100 yards in a game just four times.

Entering Year Three, opinions are admittedly mixed on Harris. Some recognize his high ceiling, ball security and incredible strength. Others are dubious of his age — already 25 — and his lack of sustained long carries.

Regardless of one’s feelings about No. 22 in black and gold, this much is true: his third year will be make-or-break, in large part because of his contract. The Steelers have to decide whether or not to pick up Harris’ fifth-year option at the conclusion of 2023, putting the onus on Harris to produce this upcoming year.

In the team’s offseason approach, much has been made about providing quarterback Kenny Pickett with additional fortification along the offensive line, as well as by adding new receiving threats. Those acquisitions simultaneously benefit Harris, too.

In terms of offensive line, Pittsburgh added Isaac Seumalo, Broderick Jones and Nate Herbig to a group that saw all of its five primary starters exceed 1,110 snaps a season ago. Specific upgrades were made to address shortcomings at left tackle and left guard.

Despite continuity in terms of health, however, the team’s O-line was not fantastic. While the Steelers ranked 10th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, the team was 24th in second-level yards — referencing occurrences of running backs earning 5-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — and 29th in open-field yards, which indicates 10+ yards past the LOS. In simpler terms, while Pittsburgh’s offensive line may have opened lanes, they were often short-lived and did not allow for chunk runs.

Harris isn’t immune from blame in terms of longer carries, either. His career-long rush is 37 yards, and his lack of elite speed constrains his home-run hitting ability. Based on the team’s improvements along its OL, expect only better run blocking in 2023, which should foster more consistent carries of 10+ yards from Harris.

One department in which Harris has consistently excelled is in breaking tackles. In both of his two seasons in the Steel City, Harris has forced 55 or more broken tackles, per PFF. Last season, Harris ranked sixth in missed tackles forced among players with 85+ carries.

Even dating back to his playing days in Tuscaloosa, Harris has had a penchant for turning disastrous runs into significant gains. That facet of his game likely will not disappear in 2023.

While I addressed Harris’ durability earlier, he has suffered injuries that have hampered his rushing ability. The running back wore a steel plate in his cleat until before the team’s Week Six clash against the Buccaneers.

In the first five games of 2022, Harris averaged 3.2 yards per carry, had just one touchdown and forced 2.5 missed tackles per game. In the last 11 games of the year, Harris’ YPC mark jumped to a gaudier 4 yards per attempt, scoring six times and evading an average of 4 tackles per contest.

Those numbers indicate that Harris was a much more prolific back after his injury adjustment — something his film bolsters, too. Early in the season, Harris appeared more tentative at the line of scrimmage, avoiding entering clear openings and instead dancing in the backfield. As the year progressed, though, the RB hit the hole more explosively and seemed more difficult to corral.

In terms of his overall production, it’s difficult to knock Harris’ season totals. But, I’m expecting him to break 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, both of which would be career highs.

Regarding a less specific numerical goal, Harris must be sure to better his RYOE figure this year, with a realistic desire to reach at least 0 (meaning he met NGS expectations), if not be positive. He should also work on earning more chunk plays as the team seeks to establish rhythm in both the passing and running game.

Harris was envisioned as being a superstar, game-changing caliber of runner when the Steelers made him their primary choice just two years ago. While his first two years have witnessed fluctuating production, all of the pieces are in place to witness a legitimate breakout — with the focal point being Harris himself.