It’s time that we have this discussion.
Now, we’ll get this out of the way first- yes, Jaylen Warren’s long touchdown run was in a preseason game. It can also be true, though, that Najee Harris doesn’t have that explosiveness to pop off a huge run. While Harris got the vast majority of touches out of the backfield last season, the numbers show that Warren should be more of a focal point, and potentially even be the No. 1 back in the offense.
Warren vs. Harris: By the numbers
Last night told a story in it of itself. Warren’s touchdown run against the Bills went for 62 yards- the longest run of Harris’ career is 37 yards.
And, yes, Harris has topped the 1,000 yard mark in each of his first two seasons. That said, I think we have gotten to a point where that is somewhat of an overstated stat that lacks context, especially when looking at Harris’ production on a per carry basis.
This TD run from Jaylen Warren is 25 yards longer than the best carry of Najee Harris’ career. The only thing holding #30 back is the Steelers’ stubbornness to justify drafting a 1st round RB. pic.twitter.com/X36u3iMqJB— Donny Football (@DonChed54) August 20, 2023
The Alabama product averages less than four yards per carry for his career, and his 3.8 yards per attempt was tied for 21st in the NFL last season, whereas Warren was tied for 10th in the league with 4.9 yards per attempt. If he maintained his yards per attempt and had the number of carries that Harris had, he would have rushed for over 1,300 yards- Harris finished the season with 1,034.
Harris adds a dimension to the receiving game for the Steelers, but Warren had more yards per reception than Harris, as well as a higher catch percentage and more yards per target. Warren also had more yards after catch than Harris, despite having 13 fewer catches.
Overall, yes- Harris had the better season and numbers. But pound for pound, Warren was the more explosive back, and we saw a prime example of that against Buffalo on Saturday.
Jaylen Warren had a 62-yard house call on the first drive with the Steelers starters.— Dwain McFarland (@dwainmcfarland) August 20, 2023
He was the more efficient back in Pittsburgh last season.
Najee Harris was still the clear lead option with the starters in Week 2 of the preseason -- very close to splits we saw in 2022. pic.twitter.com/YWPba6rK03
Can Harris still grow and break through this season? Absolutely, but it shouldn’t be forced. If the pattern of Warren being more productive with his touches continues, the Steelers just need to bite the bullet and make this a split backfield rather than forcing the issue to try and justify the selection of Harris in the first round.
By no means is this supposed to be a piece bashing Najee Harris, and I understand it will come off that way so allow me to stress that this is not the intent. However, he needs to start the season off fast and productive, or these whispers about giving Warren more touches will become shouts. At the age of 25, we can’t keep talking about his potential. Potential is just a nice way of saying “hasn’t done anything yet.” And with Harris going into his third year, especially as a running back, the clock is ticking.