Three reasons why Steelers’ Najee Harris is primed to become NFL’s premier running back in 2023

Three reasons why Steelers’ Najee Harris is primed to become NFL’s premier running back in 2023

Najee Harris‘ time is now. After two years of building, the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ running back is ready to seize the mantle of the NFL’s best running back in 2023.

The 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL DraftHarris was charged with reviving a dormant Steelers running game. The former Alabama standout did just that after rushing for 1,200 yards and earning Pro Bowl status as a rookie. Last season, Harris overcame an early training camp foot injury to become the first player in franchise history to start his career with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing campaigns. Harris’ play during those seasons helped the Steelers extend their run of non-losing seasons to 19.

The Steelers and Harris are ready for more, though. A playoff team in 2021, Pittsburgh started 3-7 last year before rallying to win six of its last seven games. A big part of the Steelers’ last playoff push last season was Harris, who scored touchdowns in four of the season’s final five games.

Pittsburgh’s roster features several prominent players, including perennial Pro Bowlers T.J. WattCam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Harris, whose name should also be included in any conversation regarding the Steelers’ best players, is in position to take the mantle as the NFL’s premier running back in 2023. Here are three reasons why.

1. Rebuilt offensive line and philosophy

Remember 2014, when Ben Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes in consecutive weekends? Well, those days are over as the Steelers have committed themselves to being a run first offense, led by Harris and fellow running back Jaylen Warren.

Speaking of Warren, many looked at his increased role in Pittsburgh’s offense last season as some sort of demotion for Harris. It was anything but as the Steelers want to spread the wealth between two backs instead of running Harris to the ground; they just needed to find a back who was good enough to get that work.

Undrafted, Warren made the team’s 53-man roster, then moved himself up to No. 2 on the depth chart. He averaged nearly five yards per carry last year while providing no drop-off when Harris was out of the game. Warren’s increased role should help keep Harris (an already durable player) fresher for longer periods of time.

A car is only as good as its tires, though, and running backs are only as effective as the offensives they play in. Good passing games lead to more running room for running backs, while an effective offensive line is a back’s lifeblood. Fortunately for Harris, the Steelers have strengthened their passing game and have aggressively bolstered their offensive line.

In 2021, Harris ran behind the Steelers’ greenest (and least talented) offensive line in years and he still ran for 1,200 yards. The unit was better last year, but it still took time for its new pieces to get comfortable with Harris, and vice versa. But Harris and the line grew together during the second half of the season, and the result was Harris crossing the 1,000-yard rushing barrier again.

The unit should be even better in 2023 after the Steelers signed guards Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig in free agency this offseason. Pittsburgh likely isn’t done addressing its line, with offensive tackle being among the positions it may choose to address with the No. 17 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Passing the ball may be the NFL’s preferred means of moving the football, but there is still great value in having a strong running game. It’s easier to win time of possession and it puts quarterbacks in more desirable situations. It can also break the will of a defense that would rather cover wideouts and rush quarterbacks than try to tackle 230-pound ball-carriers. This is how the Steelers plan to move the ball in 2023, and it’s a style their old school fanbase will surely get behind.

2. Improved quarterback play

During his first two seasons, Harris played with 39-year-old Roethlisberger, veteran Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett. Roethlisberger was still good, but defenses were more focused on stopping Harris during Big Ben’s last dance. Harris remained the vocal point of defenses last season as the Steelers tried to find their next starting quarterback.

Fortunately for Harris, the Steelers found him in Pickett, whose play steadily improved as his starts started to stack up. The wins also started to stack up, as Pittsburgh went 7-5 with Pickett under center.

Stopping Harris was and will continue to be the focus of opposing defenses. As good as Pickett played down the stretch, that continued to be the case. But Pickett made it tougher for defenses to key in on Harris with his play during the second half of the 2022 season. Defenses had to start respecting Pickett, especially his play in the pocket. That’s one of the reasons why Harris had more success down the stretch.

It appears that Pickett is determined to make even greater strides in his second season. Making it easier for him is an improved offensive line and the return of wideouts George Pickens and Diontae Johnson and tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Connor Heyward. The Steelers are also welcoming back wideout Calvin Austin IIIwho was injured and missed his entire rookie season.

Like offensive tackle, receiver is a position the Steelers will likely add to during the early phases of the draft. That’s great news for Pickett and Harris, who will obviously benefit by having more talented skill players around him.

3. A better version of Harris

Spend any amount of time around Harris, and you’ll quickly notice a maturity that is well beyond that of most 25-year-olds. His teammates picked up on it pretty fast as Harris was named a team captain last season.

A football historian, Harris studies great running backs of the past. More than their running style, Harris studies how each of those players trained in order to reach their level of greatness. That might be one of the reasons why Harris resembled an in-his-prime Walter Payton while mimicking Sweetness’ fabled hill runs during the end of a Steelers training camp practice last summer.

Harris’ work ethic is impeccablealmost too good to the point where he could be accused of overtraining. Jerry Rice had the same problem, too, which led to his trainer demanding that he started eating ice cream to avoid being less than 2% body fat.

His work ethic is one of the reasons to be high on Harris, along with the on-field changes he made during the 2022 season. After appearing hesitant at times, Harris was anything but during the second half of the season. He ran with an aggressiveness that was on the edge of borderline rage. It jumped off the screen during Pittsburgh’s late-season win over Baltimore, a victory that was clinched after Harris made the game-winning touchdown catch.

For all his success, it appeared that Harris’ confidence may have waned at times during the Steelers’ 3-7 start to the 2022 season. That certainly wasn’t the case during the second half of the year, as Harris looked like a player who knew that he was better than most anyone else on the field. There’s no reason to think that that mindset won’t continue in 2023 and for the remainder of Harris’ prime.

Harris was good during his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. He’s ready to be great in 2023, along with restoring the Steelers’ physical brand of offensive football.

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